Ravensbrück was one of the largest concentration camps for women, during World War II. It was located in northern Germany, about 90 km from Berlin. It had 40 sub-camps (many of which were set up in close proximity to armaments factories), used extensively for forced labour, that were situated in the so-called Greater German Reich, from the Baltic Sea to Austria. Over 70,000 women were forced to labour in agricultural, construction, textile and electrical industries.
Construction of the camp began in November 1938 and was opened in May 1939. It was irregular in that it was a camp primarily for women and children. Although the prisoners came from all corners of German-occupied Europe, the largest national group incarcerated in the camp, was Polish women. By January 1945, the camp had more than 50,000 prisoners, mainly women.
German authorities incarcerated various types of prisoners in Ravensbrück, including all ‘undesirable’ elements such as: Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘asocials’, and “criminals.” There were children in the camp as well. In the beginning, they were accompanied by their mothers, who were Roma (Gypsies) or Jews, imprisoned in the camp, or were born to imprisoned women. There were a few surviving Czech children from Lidice who were sent there in July 1942. Later, the children in the camp represented every country in German-occupied Europe. There were 2 main groups: (i) Roma (Gypsies) transferred to the camp in 1944 after the closure of the Romani camp, in Auschwitz-Birkenau; (ii) children brought to the camp by Polish mothers, sent to Ravensbrück after the failed general Warsaw Uprising of 1944. By the end of the war, with only a few exceptions, all of these children died of starvation or diseases that were rampant in the camp.
Besides the usual male administrators, the camp staff included only female guards, assigned to guard the prisoners at one time or other, during the camp’s existence. These female guards were not actual members of the SS, but consisted of so-called “female civilian employees of the SS” (weiblichen SS-Gefolges). From early 1942, Ravensbrück also functioned as a training facility for female SS guards.
The women were housed in 12 barracks, in which prisoners slept in three-tiered wooden bunks. Several prisoners were forced to sleep sandwiched together in each bunk, often with insufficient room to lie flat and straighten their legs. Each barrack had 1 washroom and toilets, but sanitary conditions were appalling. Food rations were insufficient and individual prisoner allotments decreased with time. By January 1945 the barracks were terribly over-crowded. The overcrowding exacerbated the atrocious sanitary conditions, and the lack of availability of fresh water, resulting in typhus being rife throughout camp.
From the beginning of 1942, SS physicians subjected prisoners at Ravensbrück to medical experiments. There were two main types of experiments performed on prisoners. The first tested the efficacy of chemical substances (sulphanilamide) on their bodies. These experiments involved cutting into and infecting leg bones and muscles with live bacteria, and inserting wood or glass into tissues. The second involved transplanting bones (from one patient to another), muscles and nerve regeneration. Women either died as a result of these experiments, or suffered life-long physical damage. SS physicians also carried out sterilisations on women and children, many of them Roma (Gypsies), in attempts to find low-cost methods of sterilisation, for those deemed “undesirables” by the Nazi Reich.