Three Lessons to be Learned from the Women of Ravensbruck That Might Help Us Today

Ravensbruck survivors at liberation in 1945.


In difficult times I often think about the prisoners at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for women. My ten years of research for my novel Lilac Girls, focused on Ravensbruck, and how, when faced with horrific incarceration by the Nazis and separation from their families, cut off from normal life and routines, so many fought back and defied the odds. As our frontline medical workers and first responders show wartime-like courage and solidarity in the face of this new war, it’s awe-inspiring and deeply moving to see them so selflessly give of themselves in the face of this pandemic and I wanted to share a few ways we can all rally around them and show a united front by learning from history. 

#1. The Ravensbruck prisoners stuck together, regardless of nationality. Women from twenty different nationalities found themselves prisoners at Ravensbruck, Hitler’s only major concentration camp for women, and there were frequent squabbles between women from different countries. The French and Polish prisoners had their petty differences. When the Russian women arrived later in the war, they ruffled feathers with what some prisoners saw as overbearing behavior. But what success the women had fighting the Nazis came from their solidarity. The Scandinavian prisoners allowed to work in the camp’s front offices took Jewish and other vulnerable prisoners off lists and helped hide babies born at the camp. Polish women gave their smuggled-in medicines to help ailing Frenchwomen. The Russian women, who put themselves in charge of the camp electrical grid soon after arriving, saved lives by turning off the lights in the camp at key times, such as during nighttime raids to take prisoners to the gas chambers. This virus is a new type of enemy, deadly in a different way, but solidarity can be life-saving today, as well.
 #2. The women were creative in their individual relationships. As soon as prisoners arrived at Ravensbruck, they recognized the need to organize into sub-groups known as camp families. They bartered, took turns caring for the sick in their “families,” and shared the food and medicines from the packages the Nazis allowed some of them to receive from home. They identified those without families, found them help, and even sent representatives to appeal to the Nazi camp staff for prisoner rights. Risking punishment and possible death, many prisoners assigned to the camp “booty piles” secreted cloth and sewing kits to mend and sew lifesaving garments to help their at-risk family members make it through winter. Family units were so successful, when the Nazi staff realized they were keeping people alive, disbanded the units by separating camp families, to achieve their quotas of planned deaths by starvation. The thousands of people sewing masks and making plastic face shields from 3-D printers are inspiring examples of such war-time resourcefulness today, and each day, stories emerge of new people coming up with creative solutions from the safety of their own family units.
#3. They banded together to help the weakest among them. Ravensbruck prisoners showed incredible selflessness toward the young and the sick among them. In order to protect the vulnerable, many, even knowing they would be sent to the punishment bunker or executed, volunteered to take the of ID numbers of the “rabbits,” women, many just teenagers, who had been experimented on by the Nazi doctors. They knew they could survive a week in the punishment bunker, but the young women who’d been newly operated on could not. Older prisoners who’d been at the camp longer showed younger prisoners the ways of the camp and taught those who didn’t know German the life-saving phrases, since all commands were given in the German language. Prisoners also devised ways to remove the tattooed prisoner numbers from the arms of those newly arrived from Auschwitz, and held religious services in their blocks to keep prisoner morale up, for depression was often as deadly as typhus. Empathy saved lives at Ravensbruck and can do so today as well.
Hopefully, looking back at how a group of women facing a scourge they couldn’t control can shed a bit of light on how we can all work through this new war. As Ravensbruck shows, if we work as one to have the backs of our supremely courageous front-line responders, and support our own individual units with grace and resourcefulness, we can face the unknown together, and emerge stronger than any enemy.