You stop midway between two worlds while an East German guard. his Russian-style carbine slung over his shoulder, ogles you through binoculars. Then your foot touches the accelerator, and you’ve left Checkpoint Charlie and West Berlin. The heavy, candy-striped steel crossbar goes up, and you show your passport at the gate. I had done this hundreds of times before, but this time was different. I wasn’t just crossing into East Berlin for the day. I was heading into what people in Bonn and West Berlin call “the Zone,” meaning the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, better known to most Americans as East Germany.
For such a trip you need a visa. Once it was almost impossible to obtain. Now the East Germans admit visitors, even Americans, with little ado.
I recognized the guard at the gate. He was a burly, smiling sergeant who could have played tackle at Notre Dame. He was surprised to see I had a visa this time and even more surprised when he read where I was going in East Germany. But he said nothing as he handed back my dog-eared green passport and motioned me toward the little shed where the East Germans put visitors through “immigration controls.”
There a young woman in the blue-gray uniform of an immigration inspector scrutinized my passport, then looked up quickly to ask in German, “You are traveling to Ravensbrück?” There was a note of incredulity in her voice. I nodded. Conquering her curiosity, she stamped my visa and said matter-of-factly, “Please be sure to report to the police when you arrive in Ravensbrück.” As she uttered the last word, she looked searchingly at me again, clearly trying to divine why anyone would be going to such a place. Explanations always seem to complicate things in communist countries. So I offered none. After two more passport checks and a meticulous examination of my little Volkswagen. I passed through the last barrier and into East Berlin.
The way to Ravensbrück was familiar because I had taken the same road to Rostock on East Germany’s Baltic coast the year before. From the crossing point in Friedrichstrasse you pass through Alexanderplatz, where Berlin’s mercantile pulse beat most strongly until the heart of the city was destroyed by war and communism. Then past the gloomy granite pile that houses the People’s Police headquarters, and through suburban Pankow, where East Germany’s rulers first established themselves after the war. The sullen drabness of East Berlin finally gives way to the scrub pines and collectivized grain fields of the Brandenburg countryside. About a half hour north of Berlin, at Oranienburg on the Havel, a sign points to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial. But I had already seen Sachsenhausen. This time I was headed for the women’s and children’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück, and one can live with only so many horrors at a time.
The road to Ravensbrück is no autobahn, but it is adequate for East Germany’s meager traffic. Passenger cars are rare. At one point a Russian army convoy lumbered by, its license plates protectively painted out. The Soviet military is all over East Germany. Sometimes I think the Russians are the only kinetic bodies in this static, vacant land.
The road from Berlin to Ravensbrück runs forty-eight miles through one neglected village after another. The houses are unpainted and seem to be sinking slowly out of sight. Their windows are curtained and dirty, as if the inhabitants want to make doubly sure they are insulated from the reality outside. The only daubs of color in the drab landscape are the ubiquitous white-on-red propaganda slogans proclaiming the virtues of socialism and “unbreakable friendship with the peoples of the Soviet Union.”
I had been driving about two hours when I noticed a subtle change in topography. The sandy, shaggy Brandenburg plain was succeeded by the brooding lake country of Mecklenburg. Low hills and ridges recalled the last mighty thrust of the Ice Age into northern Europe. Fürstenberg-on-the-Havel (pop. 9,000) marks the southern fringe of the lake country. Entering the town is like stepping thirty years back into German history. The main street is asphalted; all others are cobbled. The houses huddle together, their steep roofs often covered with a protective layer of sod. Everything about Fürstenberg is faded. The market square is dominated by an amber brick church built about the turn of the century in unsightly German neo-Gothic. Opposite the church is the Mecklenburger Hof, still a tidy north German inn despite the initials HOG over the entrance, which signify that it now belongs to the octopus East German state retail-trade organization.
I dropped my suitcase at the Mecklenburger Hof before driving the last mile to Ravensbrück. The town of Fürstenberg and the hamlet of Ravensbrück merge along the main road leading to Neustrelitz in the north. The municipal boundary is marked only by a dingy cinema that was showing a Russian feature film with German subtitles that day. Ravensbrück is a tiny, one-street community that would have kept a well-deserved anonymity had it not been for Heinrich Himmler’s interest in a boggy piece of local real estate owned by a police retirement society. At the northern edge of Ravensbrück is a cluster of road signs where two country roads intersect the main highway to Neustrelitz, which lies thirteen miles away. Berlin is forty-seven miles and Gransee, the district seat, fourteen and a quarter miles. A smaller marker bears the name Nationale Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück (National Memorial and Commemorative Site at Ravensbrück), with “1 kilometer” painted on an arrow pointing east.
The road to the memorial passes a few ramshackle frame houses, then reaches a fork. There, silhouetted against the gray Mecklenburg sky, three agonized wrought-iron figures carry something on a stretcher. I got out to have a close look. The three sepulchral stretcher-bearers are women carrying a dead child. They are barefoot, with sunken breasts barely visible under sacklike garments that hang in tatters to their ankles. Almost twice life size, they stare impassively, like the figures of medieval saints at the door of a great European cathedral.
An elderly woman shuffled by. I asked her how to find the road to the Ravensbrück memorial.
“This is the road.” she said with a heavy Slavic accent, pointing to the right fork of the road. -I should know. I helped build it.”
“Were you an inmate at Ravensbrück” I asked.
“Yes. I was brought here in a cattle car in December, 1941, and survived until the Red Army liberated the camp on April 30, 1945. I was Yugoslav then. But I married a German after the war and have been here ever since.”
“Tell me about the road,” I said.
“We built it ourselves, with no help from anyone,- she recalled proudly. “Eight or twelve of us would pull a heavy stone roller to prepare the roadbed. We laid every stone by hand. We had no gloves. Many of the women died of blood poisoning.”
Today this half-mile stretch of paved road is used mainly by Russian soldiers, members of the garrison that has been quartered at the former Ravensbrück camp since the end of the war. I drove slowly down the road toward the camp. To the left are two-family wooden houses, solidly built, but even more unkempt than most East German dwellings. Ravensbrück inmates helped put up these quarters for the Nazi SS Élite Guard officers assigned to the camp. Now they are occupied by Soviet officers and their families. To the right of the road is Schwedt See, where the SS dumped the ashes of thousands of women and children. As I headed down the road, a chill breeze was ruffling the lake waters and the dark pines on the opposite hank. A little lake ferry was trying to tie up at an improvised landing stage on the near bank.
The road the inmates built leads to a large, peak-roofed structure whose design bespeaks its German military origin. Behind it is a wall topped with barbed wire. The double gate is emblazoned with a large red star of the Soviet army. The gate, needless to say, was closed. I drove into a spacious paved area in front of the camp, to the right. I assumed it was a parking lot, although no other cars were there. An elderly German attendant said good morning and pointed to a paved walk leading past the lake to a side entrance on the right. A low stone wall newly built by the lakeside bears a chiseled inscription in German by the East German writer Anna Seghers. It reads: “The women of Ravensbrück are the mothers and sisters of us all. You would not have been able to learn and play in liberty—indeed you might even not have been born—if women like these had not placed their delicate, weak bodies as a steel shield before you and your future.”
Sixteen young linden trees have been planted in neat rows on the right side of the camp wall. Just before you reach the steps leading to the entrance to the Ravensbrück museum, you find yourself looking down a narrow alleyway formed by high, windowless walls of brick and mortar. This slitlike passage is about 200 feet long and three or four feet wide. A stone marker at one end says: “The shooting corridor—Here hundreds of women and girls were murdered by the SS by being shot through the neck.” The corridor is dirty, strewn with broken glass and rubbish. Beginning in February 1941, 600 Ravensbrück inmates, including two English girls parachuted into occupied Europe for espionage purposes, were executed here.
Beyond the shooting corridor I climbed two flights of stone steps to reach the main entrance to the former punishment-cell block, now the Ravensbrück museum. The double door was open. I walked in. The atmosphere inside is one of antiseptic horror. I found myself standing on the upper floor of a narrow, rectangular building, looking over an iron railing into a two-story central well that runs from one end to the other. Patches of white light emitted from the punishment cells on either side seem to contend with pools of darkness in the center. At the opposite end of the building a sculptured figure stands before a barred window etched in feeble daylight. The ground-floor tiles glisten clinically.
“Welcome to Ravensbrück,” said a cultivated female voice. I turned to see a woman of medium height with straight, straw-colored hair and heavy-lidded blue eyes. She was Martha Engel, director of the Ravensbrück memorial center, and she wore the insignia of the East German Socialist Unity (Communist) Party in the lapel of her cheap raincoat.
“More than 132,000 women and children from twenty-three countries passed through this concentration camp,” she said quietly. “At least 92,000 of them perished. They were gassed, shot, beaten and starved to death; or they died from sadistic medical experiments or exposure or disease or exhaustion, or just because they gave up trying to survive. There were many roads to death at Ravensbrück.”
Martha Engel looks older than her fifty-seven years. A communist since 1933, she was imprisoned by the Nazis on suspicion of high treason. After her release in 1940 she led a shadowy half-life as an underground communist worker until the end of the War. Her background is middle class. Intelligent and uninhibited and garrulously outspoken. Frau. Engel is a far cry from the usual American notion of a communist. Although she was never an inmate at Ravensbrück, she relives its monstrous epic with an intensity and sincerity I found remarkable.
“Our job here at the memorial center is political,” Martha Engel told me frankly. “We must always do political work with our people, because we Germans didn’t have a revolution. It is possible that the roots of fascism are still buried here,”
She was interrupted by a group of East German visitors who asked the price of admission.
“There’s no admission charge,” Frau Engel answered them. “It’s free. Please come in.”
The Germans made obsequious little bows, murmured their thanks and began peering at the exhibits.
“We’ve had about 400,000 visitors, almost all of them from the socialist countries,” she said, turning back to me, “since the center here was opened in September, 1959. The first four months of 1965 we had exactly six Americans. I don’t know why more don’t come. They’re most welcome here, and there’s no problem with visas now.”
Martha Engel dreams of making Ravensbrück a full-fledged historical museum with a professional historian permanently assigned to sift the records of the camp. “I have eighteen or nineteen people on my staff now,” she told me. “Only two of them are academically qualified.”
Käthe Orlowski, a gentle, white-haired woman with a diploma in museum science, is Frau Engel’s deputy. She proudly showed me a report she had written: The Role and Significance of the Punishment Cell Block at the Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp in the SS Terror System.
“Do you like it here?” I asked her.
“Well, I’ve been here since 1962,” Frau Orlowski said. “The horror wears off a little when you’re here every day. But psychologically and physically it tells on a person. I’ll stay as long as my nerves hold out. But I wouldn’t want to make this my life work.”
She excused herself to usher a group of East German visitors into a side room, where she recited the history of Ravensbrück with the help of a large scale model of the camp made after the war by former inmates.
“The camp was begun in the fall of 1938 by male prisoners sent here from Sachsenhausen. The first 867 women, including many German communists, arrived here by rail on March 23, 1939. The first children—Austrian gypsies—reached Ravensbrück in June that year. Most inmates were political prisoners, but asocial and criminal women were also confined here. The SS wanted to degrade the political prisoners and use the prostitutes and criminals as spies. The camp was originally designed for 5,000 inmates, but by October, 1944, there were 80,000 women and children here, making it the largest concentration camp of its kind in history.”
Like most East German communists, Frau Orlowski had neglected to tell her listeners that a large proportion of Ravensbrück’s inmates were Jewish women and children whose only crime was their religion. Nor did she mention the Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to swear allegiance to the Hitler regime, but co-operated in every other way with the SS camp administration. In its zeal to glorify the German communists’ struggle against the Nazis, the East German regime has rewritten the history of many a concentration camp.
“International solidarity played a great role in saving the lives of many inmates,” Frau Orlowski told the visitors. “Communists of all nations took the lead. They co-operated with social democrats, trade unionists and other antifascists.
“These are the gas chambers,” she continued, moving her pointer to two innocuous-looking cubes about the size of pocket dice on the scale model. “They were built late in 1944 and dynamited by the SS before the Soviet army reached Ravensbrück. At least 7,000 women and children were gassed in these chambers. Thousands of others were gassed in trucks near here or transported to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen or other extermination camps. Anyone deemed unfit for work in the arms factories or SS workshops here was sent to the gas. About 42,000 women and children from Ravensbrück were killed in this way.”
As Käthe Orlowski droned on in her toneless singsong, I studied the faces of the middle-aged Germans grouped around the scale model. Several of the women sat on benches against the wall. The men stared fixedly at the replica, as if they expected small figures to emerge from the miniature cell blocks. The visitors were from Neustrelitz, where the men worked in the administration of a state-owned plant.
“What do you think of this place?” I asked them.
They eyed me skeptically, and one of the men replied. “Schrecklich, schrecklich; [terrible].” They clearly didn’t want to talk about Ravensbrück—perhaps because, having been adults during the Nazi time, they felt a certain responsibility for what was done then.
“I’ll give you a conducted tour of the museum,” Martha Engel said, interrupting my desultory conversation with the visiting group. We began in a room filled with unflattering pictures of German industrialists, including an unshaven Alfried Krupp. “This room demonstrates the origins and background of fascism,” Frau Engel declared. “I think we overdid it at first. Our young people were put off a bit. Now we realize we don’t have to put it so bluntly.” A photo montage of three West German military leaders in front of mounds of corpses bears the legend: “In West Germany a new tragedy has begun. In league with fascists and militarists, the culprits and their henchmen of the Second World War want to plunge Germany and the world into the catastrophe of a third world war.” The approach has hardly become subtle.
On another wall of the same room is a photostat of a letter from an I. G. Farben subsidiary offering the Ravensbrück SS 170 Reichsmarks per head for inmates to be used as guinea pigs in experiments on a new “sleep drug.” Another letter from the same firm requests the use of more test subjects because the first batch all died “as a result of the experiments.”
A large wall map of Europe in the next room is studded with colored buttons. “Ravensbrück was one of the Nazis’ twenty main concentration camps,” Frau Engel said, indicating on the map. “There were 2,000 auxiliary camps throughout occupied Europe. They were administratively attached to the main camps. Ravensbrück was the only one on German soil just for women and children. About 100 labor companies of 1,000 inmates each were sent from here to work in factories all over Europe. Of course the SS got paid by the firms for providing slave labor.”
I turned away from the map and found myself looking directly into blown-up portraits of thirty former Ravensbrück inmates. Some were young and attractive; others looked like grandmothers. Almost all had been executed at Ravensbrück. “Three fourths of them were communists,” Frau Engel interjected. Opposite this heroines’ gallery is a collection of pictures of SS guards, female overseers and Ravensbrück’s two commandants, Max Koegel (1939-42) and Fritz Suhren (1942-45). Koegel kept up the pretense of running Ravensbrück as a civilized penal institution. He doted on showing visitors the immaculate barracks of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Suhren was a sadist who turned Ravensbrück into an extermination camp with a higher percentage of deaths than in any other camp on German soil.
“How many of the Ravensbrück SS have been executed?” I inquired of Frau Engel.
“We don’t know.” she admitted, to my surprise. “Suhren escaped from the British soon after the war, but was caught by the French and executed. I don’t know what happened to Koegel.” Her eyes narrowed as she stopped before the picture of a buxom, heavy-featured woman in what appeared to be a courtroom dock. “That’s the Binz,” she said with real hatred in her voice. “SS chief warden Dorothea Binz. She terrorized the whole camp with her riding whip and a police dog trained to attack inmates on her command. The dog always wore a coat adorned with the swastika. The Binz was executed by the British in 1947 along with ten other Ravensbrück wardens, SS doctors and trustee prisoners.”
Carmen Mory, sometimes called the Mata Hari of World War II, was one of the trustees; she committed suicide after being sentenced to death in 1947 for having co-operated with the SS. Her photograph, showing a dark-haired Swiss beauty, looks out of place beside the rogues’ gallery of brutish wardens and guards. She was condemned to death by the French in 1940 after being convicted of espionage. The Nazis freed her, rearrested her on spy charges and shipped her to Ravensbrück, where she was an SS stool pigeon. Her false denunciations caused the death of hundreds of inmates.
“Here’s one who should have been executed,” Frau Engel exclaimed as she glared at a photograph of Dr. Hertha Oberheuser, perhaps the most notorious of the SS physicians at Ravensbrück. She injected healthy inmates with gangrene bacilli, planted glass fragments in their legs, and fractured shinbones to carry out surgical transplants. None of these gruesome “experiments” yielded an iota of scientific knowledge. The wartime photograph of Dr. Oberheuser that stares out from the museum wall today shows a handsome, Teutonic-looking young woman with languid eyes and a small, turned-down mouth. After serving only seven years of a twenty-year sentence imposed by a Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal, the lady was allowed to resume medical practice with the help of a DM 10,000 ($2,500) grant from the Bonn government as a “late returnee” from the war. She is now a Prosperous pediatrician in Schleswig-Holstein, a West German state that offers its hospitality to many former Nazis. The fate of Dr. Oberheuser and others like her who now lie openly in West Germany is a favorite theme for communist propaganda aimed at portraying the Bonn republic as a den of ex-Nazis.
“They called them the rabbits,” Frail Engel said fiercely as we looked at photographs of young women used as medical guinea pigs by SS doctors. “They were usually the best-looking girls. Most of them were shot or gassed after fearful sufferings as a result of the ‘experiments’ carried out on them.”
The Ravensbrück museum is not designed for weak stomachs. Room after room is filled with grisly mementos of the camp: the wooden rack with leather thongs where offenders received from twenty-five to a hundred lashes on their bare buttocks on Tuesdays and Fridays, designated by Himmler as whipping days; the three-tier wooden bunks where inmates slept three or four to a bed; the photographs of naked women waiting in line with their babies to enter the gas chamber; and the official camp records of the 863 children born in the camp, only twenty of whom survived the inferno. There are also the prayer beads made by Russian peasant women out of bread crumbs or scraps of wool. Striped clothing with colored dots and triangles denoting categories of prisoners still hangs in worm-eaten lockers.
The SS had a perverted sense of humor. They distributed shoe-shine cloths to inmates who had wooden sandals or no footwear at all. Lest other women be jealous, the camp administration forbade French inmates to serve as cooks. When a group of French women was repatriated by the International Red Cross a few days before the war ended, Commandant Suhren wished them bon voyage and said, “I hope you will not take with you too disagreeable a recollection of your stay at the camp.”
Frau Engel led me downstairs to the memorial rooms maintained in the former punishment cells by each of sixteen nations whose women died at Ravensbrück. In the Polish room Frau Engel gazed at pictures of seven attractive Polish “rabbits” and 160 other Polish women, many of them no more than young girls, who were shot at the camp. “Some very beautiful women among them,” she mused.
Most of the memorial rooms are overloaded with communist propaganda pictures of smiling peasants and throbbing hydroelectric plants in contemporary Eastern Europe. The Italian room is refreshingly free of political preachment. Its whitewashed walls are adorned with shadowy figures in silhouette and covered with iron grillwork simulating prison bars. A simple plaque in Italian, German. Russian and English says, “We fought and suffered here for you.”
“It’s always clammy down here,” Frau Engel said. “An ideal place for punishment cells.” There were eighty tiny cells in the Bunker, as the punishment block was called. Each is about five feet wide and ten feel long, with a single window near the ceiling. This was painted black w hen an inmate was confined in Dunkelarrest, or complete blackness. Women were thrown into the Bunker for days, weeks and even months simply on suspicion of having committed some trifling breach of camp regulations. Each cell has a four-legged wooden stool screwed to the floor, a small radiator that was often turned off in winter, and a retractable iron bed with straw mattress. The bed could he folded up against the wall, forcing the inmate to spend her nights perched on the tiny stool or freezing on the concrete floor. Prisoners in the Bunker were often deprived of food for as long its a week.
Little is left of the old Ravensbrück camp besides the Bunker, the shooting corridor and the crematorium where inmates’ corpses were incinerated. The fifty green-painted prisoners’ barracks, as well as the infamous camp hospital, were demolished by the Russians soon after they reached Ravensbrück. The official explanation is that the buildings were disease-ridden and too jerry-built to be worth preserving. But the Russians still use some old camp facilities, including the commandant’s building outside the former main gate. The present Russian commander at Ravensbrück is a Lieutenant Colonel Pershine, a handsome, dark-eyed man in his mid-forties. He agreed to talk to me at the museum office after his superiors had rejected my request to inspect the former camp site that is now occupied by Russian troops.
“What would you think if you unexpectedly came across a pile of skeletons in your backyard?” the Russian officer asked me earnestly. A surly Russian woman translated his question into German. I admitted that I would not relish the experience. “Well,” Pershine continued, “our soldiers often find skeletons buried under the old barracks. They’re former inmates thrown into makeshift graves by the SS or buried by fellow prisoners who hoped to pick up the dead person’s rations.” I asked him if the young Russian soldiers were interested in what happened at Ravensbrück more than twenty years ago. Pershine replied, as if on cue, “Soviet people resolutely oppose fascism and always seek to study its history.” I inquired if he liked his assignment in East Germany, and the nervous officer launched into another propaganda homily: “The friendship of the Soviet and German peoples has deep roots going back to Marx and Engels. We stand together in the cause of….”
I glanced over at Frau Engel, who was smiling wanly. She interrupted Pershine to explain that I was only trying to get some idea of the life of the Soviet detachment at Ravensbrück and reactions to the place. But the Russian stuck to his propaganda cliches. I realized then how much more rapport there was between Martha Engel, an old-line East German communist, and me, an emissary of capitalist America, than between her and her Soviet comrade in ideology. East Germans, whatever their politics, are still Westerners; Russians are not.
With evident relief the Soviet commandant took his leave, after asking me to convey his greetings to the American people. As soon as he and his female interpreter had departed, Frau Engel said, “I like the comrade commandant. He’s a nice fellow, like all his predecessors. We’ve been very lucky. The friends have sent us good men.” She always called the Russians “the friends.”
“But I can’t stand that woman,” Frau Engel went on, referring referring to Pershine’s interpreter. “She never interprets more than a fraction of what he or anyone else says, and she acts as if she were doing you a big favor to do even that.” Comradely relations at Ravensbrück still leave something to be desired on the distaff side.
“Maybe the commandant is afraid of winding up in a Russian concentration camp if he says anything to an American,” I remarked half jokingly. Frau Engel grew serious.
“Yes,” she said to me, “Stalin sent lots of people to Siberia. Under Stalin and Beria the Soviet comrades never knew what was going to happen to them. It’s no secret any more.”
In one corner of the little office, Frau Engel’s Russian-speaking assistant, Sieglinde Wienmeister, a lanky blond who usually escorts Soviet visitors through the museum, had been following my conversation with Pershine with bemused interest. I turned to her now and asked, “Why didn’t you help us out? You could have interpreted much better than the colonel’s lady.”
Fraulein Wienmeister looked at me shyly for a moment, then replied, “I stay out unless they ask me to help. They’d resent it if I butted in.” By “they” she clearly meant the Russians.
“She wants to leave us anyway,” Martha Engel interjected without rancor. “Fraulein Wienmeister is twenty-five, and she doesn’t want to spend her life in this chamber of horrors.” The young woman gravely nodded assent.
In communist countries every enterprise—be it a collective pig farm or the ministry of culture—has a book in which visitors record their impressions with varying degrees of candor. Käthe Orlowski bustled into the office at this point with two volumes bound in leather and brimming with party-line comments on Ravensbrück by visitors from communist countries or communist delegations from the West. Almost without exception they pledged to “struggle against a second Ravensbrück.” One had penned a memorable contribution: “What has happened here will give wings to our further work in the cause of humanism. We shall mobilize more strongly than ever our whole strength for the comprehensive construction of socialism.”
“Are all the reactions like that?” I asked Frau Engel.
“No,” she said. “Most people are genuinely affected. Many women weep, although we don’t try to make them cry. We want them to understand what the fascists did—and to remember.
“Not long ago,” she went on, smiling, “a couple of hefty Scandinavians fainted when they saw the crematorium. But we don’t want just to shock people. We removed the picture of a headless child when we noticed groups of schoolchildren spending all their time gaping at it and whispering excitedly to each other.”
I thought of another picture I had seen in books about the Nazi concentration-camp system. It would have shocked visitors to the museum even more. It showed two naked women from Ravensbrück’s “asocial” contingent nestling in bed beside the half-frozen male victim of an SS doctor’s experiment in “body cooling and re-warming techniques.” There must also be pictures of the hundreds of Ravensbrück inmates who “volunteered” to serve in concentration-camp bordellos operated (at a profit) by the SS for male prisoners. Nor, needless to say, is there anything at the memorial center to document the lesbianism that ran rampant in many parts of the camp. Some things are lest forgotten.
“As you know,” Frau Engel was saying, “our government encourages the youth of our country to visit Ravensbrück and other concentration-camp sites. Even the East Berlin football teams come here every year. It’s part of our past. No one can disown it completely. Yet it’s hard for young people to realize they have one foot in the mire. To have a decent fatherland is worth something after all.”
Frau Engel has no car, so I asked her to accompany me on a drive around the grounds. She readily agreed, and we drove from Schwedt See through the silent forests of aspens, alders and pine to the former “youth camp” at Uckermark. It was converted into an extermination camp in the fall of 1944 to catch the human overflow from Ravensbrück. “At Ravensbrück they got 150 grams of bread and a half liter of watery soup a day,” Martha Engel said, “but here at Uckermark rations were even shorter. Anyone considered unfit for work in the factories was sent here to be gassed or killed some other way. Many were given lethal injections or poison powders. Very few survived.”
As we talked, we drove by a trilingual Russian sign warning “members of foreign military missions” against trespassing on the reservation. “I don’t know why they put that sign up,” Frau Engel said. “The Russians never use this area.”
“I don’t belong to any military mission,” I said, “so let’s go on.” She laughed, and we drove over rutted roads through heavy underbrush, frightening a few fawns as we passed. “Terrible things happened here,” Frau Engel said with classic understatement. “But there’s nothing left here now. All the buildings were destroyed at the end of the war.” My mind went back to accounts I had heard of Hungarian Jewesses, told to bring their best clothes, arriving at the death camp in evening gowns and dying on dirty straw pallets even before they were dispatched to the gas chamber.
We had already left the Uckermark reservation and were driving along a typically somber Mecklenburg lake. We passed an old villa now used as a rest home and holiday center for an East Berlin publishing house. Down the road two men in the uniforms of East German railroad workers were Puttering around a boat. “This is nice country in summer,” Frau Engel said, “but pretty bleak in winter.”
That evening Frau Engel insisted on using her “representation allowance” to take me to dinner at the Mecklenburger Hof. A group of Russian officers at the next table stared moodily into their vodka glasses. Frau Engel ordered a sweet Rumanian dessert wine and explained to me, “It’s the best thing available here.” When the inevitable potatoes arrived streaked with black, she ordered “new potatoes” and ignored the waiter’s stammered excuses until I made clear that I was content with what was at hand.
Later that night we visited the tiny apartment of Fräulein Paula Schulz, a Fürstenberg pharmacist’s helper who had used her position during the war to slip desperately needed drugs to Ravensbrück inmates. Now an elderly lady, she still works at the Paracelsus Apotheke on Fürstenberg’s main street.
Frau Engel had told me Paula Schulz was notoriously self-effacing, but I still was not prepared for her answer when I asked, “Weren’t you afraid to smuggle medicines into the camp?”
“Oh, no,” she replied with a smile. “I knew there was no danger. You see, there were enough inmate doctors to see that the drugs we sent were properly used.”
“I meant afraid for yourself, for your own safety.”
“Of course we were all terrified of the SS. They wanted me to work at the camp, but I refused. But there was no danger for me, because I could give the drugs to two trusty inmates who were allowed outside the camp.”
“What kind of medicines did you give them?” I inquired.
“Well, heart stimulants in the first place,” she replied. “The women needed them to keep standing through the two-and three-hour roll calls every morning and evening, especially in winter. Only the dying or the insane missed roll call, because being absent meant almost certain shipment to the gas chambers. Then, you’ll be surprised, I also sent the prisoners hair dye. The older women begged for it to darken the gray in their hair so they wouldn’t automatically be selected for the gas.”
“Did you know about the gassings?”
“Yes, we did,” Fraulein Schulz answered gravely. “But not until the final months. It was hideous. The young girls with strong hearts were often still alive when the chambers were opened and the bodies removed. A friend of mine saw a girl of about fifteen, still living, staring blankly from the top of a heap of corpses. Of course it made no difference. The living went into the ovens along with the dead.”
“What do people here think of Ravensbrück now, or do they think about it?” I asked.
Paula Schulz thought for a long moment. Her face seemed to mirror many remembered sorrows.
“People don’t want to see Ravensbrück now,” she said simply. “But they know what happened there. When the Russians first came, they conscripted 500 townspeople a day to work cleaning up the camp. So people here know what was there at the end of the war. Now groups of schoolchildren visit the museum with their teachers at vacation time. Sometimes they go by themselves—just out of curiosity. It shouldn’t all be leveled and forgotten.”
She gave a little involuntary shiver as she recalled the camp—a reaction I have come to anticipate in talking with anyone who knew Ravensbrück under the Nazis.
“When I came here in 1961,” Frau Engel told me as we walked back from Paula Schulz’s apartment, “the ex-inmates told me that all the Fürstenberg people were Nazis. But that woman is different. She’s never talked about what she did. Real heroes keep silent.”
The next morning I went back to the camp. Russian folk music was blaring from the Soviet encampment. I climbed the steps to the museum entrance and looked again over the wall into what had been the main street of the Ravensbrück camp. The area is now festooned with Soviet propaganda placards. I thought of inmate children playing such games as “roll call” and “execution” at Christmas parties held on this spot, thanks to the gracious permission of the SS. Such moments were the only happiness most of those children ever knew. For the women at Ravensbrück, the best days of their captivity had come during a spontaneous epidemic of hysterical polio that caused the SS to seal off the camp for weeks and cancel all labor details. It might have lasted forever if the camp physicians had not sensed something was amiss and brought in electroshock equipment to jolt inmates out of their neurotic paralysis.
Then I walked back to the lake shore. Behind me the reddish-orange polyantha roses were in bloom along the high camp wall that bore the names of twenty-three European countries—from Albania to the USSR—whose women and children perished at Ravensbrück. This was the long mass grave dug for the ashes of those who passed through the crematorium ovens. As I walked along the wall, kites swooped low over the black waters of the Schwedt See. The sculptured figure of one emaciated woman carrying another—the so-called Solidarity Monument—towered over the lake. The sky had its usual foreboding quality. I recalled the words of Margarete Buber-Neumann, who had been sent to Ravensbrück after long years as a political prisoner in Siberian concentration camps:
“I had always thought,” she wrote, “that the sky over the steppes surpassed all else in beauty, but at Ravensbrück it seemed to me that I had never in my life seen such a miracle sky. As a concentration-camp inmate, one turns her gaze to the sky because there there is no barbed wire; the drifting clouds, the gleaming stars, the soaring birds, are all that remain of freedom that cannot be taken away. The other
freedom —the forest, the street, the meadow, the home, one’s whole life–sinks into oblivion the longer one spends behind walls, and even the yearning for freedom is numbed. In the end there remains only the vault of heaven.”
As I climbed into my car to return to Berlin, I noticed a group of young Russian soldiers about to enter the camp museum, no doubt for want of anything better to do.
As I drove back down the road built by the inmates, I was wondering whether the Russians or anyone else could fully grasp the meaning of this latter-day Golgotha of the women and children of Europe. I could at least agree with Paula Schulz: “It’s good that it shouldn’t all be leveled and forgotten.” ◊
Welles Hangen, NBC’s chief China-watcher in Hong Kong, recently completed “The Mutual Revolution—East Germany’s Challenge to Russia and the West”—published by Alfred A. Knopf.