I joined a chaplain-sponsored excursion to Poland the first weekend in April. My soon-to-depart buddy Dawn had told me about it and instead of offering to watch her kids, I asked to tag along! As luck would have it, our husbands were happy to let us go and we had such a great time being buds without the distraction of children for once! (We both agree traveling with the group dynamic might have done our husbands in!)
We joined a caravan of 16 passenger vans holding almost 40 people at 7am Thursday morning and made our way north. Our van happened to have some people who needed to stop frequently so we made it to Ravensbruck Camp just as it was closing. I was in a frenzy to jump out and go see it while people haggled over where to park and if it would even be open. Dawn and I were able to hop off and get into the main buildings that were open which wasn't much. This site was partially used by the Soviets even up to the end of the Cold War so exhibits are still being developed.
Ravensbruck was primarily a women's camp and between 1939-45, over 130,000 women passed through the camp and it is believed that only somewhere between 15,000-32,000 survived. The numbers are fuzzy for good reason. In both memoirs I've read of women who spent time there, they spoke of it being a transit point and records show it had 70 or so camps affiliated with it. The predominant number of prisoners were Polish, but Corrie ten Boom and her sister from the Netherlands spent time here. There were many nationalities here and they held together in their respective groups.
The thing that sticks out to me from Countess Lanckoronska's memoir is how prisoners from France and Italy died off pretty quickly because they were not acclimated to the much colder climate and preponderance of new diseases and deplorable conditions once they arrived. Ravensbruck was also used to train SS women guards for camps and these women were known for their brutality and sadism. Fortunately, over a dozen were put on trial after the war.
The women held in this camp found ways to maintain some semblance of their dignity. Jehovah's witnesses died off quickly because they refused to work on behalf of the Nazis in any of the war industries of the camp -- sewing SS uniforms, building portions of the V2 bombs, electrical components, and hard labor. There was a painting inside the SS headquarters of them gathered around to hear from a few smuggled pages of the Bible in their bunks. I can't imagine living in these conditions.
Countess Lanckoronska was part of the Polish secret education programs. Each nationality held their own secret education programs although the Poles' were the most extensive. When Poland was given to the Soviets before the end of the war, the nationalist Poles like the Countess were so disheartened and discouraged by their communist Polish fellow prisoners and the Soviet prisoners because they were told to stop teaching non-communist ideals and culture to the younger Polish women. Imagine if us patriotic Americans were told our country was to become part of the Soviet Union. Our ideals of freedom, our history, our culture to be changed forever and rewritten by our occupiers. This trip solidified to me what this meant.
Medical experiments on leg bones, muscles and nerves were done on over 80 women, mostly Poles. Sterilizations also took place, particularly on the Gypsies. The place where the barracks stood looks a lot like Dachau. Barren and somber. There was a crematorium and in the autumn of 1944, a gas chamber was added too. Oh those poor souls who had to suffer through this experience.