Bearing Witness

Sarah Helm’s powerful “biography” of Ravensbruck gathers vital testimony from the camp’s survivors

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Diverse population: Ravensbrück concentration camp, where up to 50,000 women died (courtesy of Little, Brown)

In 2005, the journalist Sarah Helm published a fascinating biography of Vera Atkins, the officer of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) responsible for dispatching women agents into France during the Second World War.

In the course of her research, Helm had retraced Atkins’s steps after the defeat of Hitler when she went to France and Germany to interview the captors of the SOE operatives. Atkins had discovered that several of them landed in a concentration camp for women at Ravensbrück, near Berlin. Violette Szabo, the former shop assistant who had first departed from RAF Tempsford on  April 5, 1944, was shot in Ravensbrück in January 1945. She was awarded a posthumous George Cross. SOE agents Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe were executed around the same time. Cecily Lefort was gassed there in February 1945. Odette Sansom (who also was to awarded the George Cross), Yvonne Basedon and Eileen Nairne survived.

Helm then embarked on a further journey of discovery by researching the conditions for all the prisoners and guards in Ravensbrück. With the years that had passed since her investigation into Atkins, the last survivors of the camp were getting even older. Her work was a last chance to meet them. She became ever more deeply involved in a massive project which took her to, among other places, Berlin, Cracow, Warsaw, Moscow, St Petersburg, Donetsk, Odessa, Jerusalem, Bad Arolsen, Geneva, Vienna, Paris and Bordeaux, although one survivor turned out to be a neighbour in London.

Written as a collective “biography” of a camp complex in which an estimated 130,000 women were confined at one time or other during 1939-45 and where 40,000-50,000 died, her packed, compellingly written book comes to more than 750 pages. It is an indication of its power and significance that my main regret is that it frequently feels too short.

Since the author has gathered such a wealth of material, much of it from interviews with elderly survivors and from documents provided by them and their families, it is vital that she prepares for herself, for scholars and for the remaining survivors a full set of interview notes, documents and more detailed source notes for future reference. It was impractical to lengthen the book by detailing the source material, but there is a strong case for making it available, possibly online.

Though Helm has skilfully arranged her material into a chronological narrative, there is such a quantity of it covering such a variety of topics that the book is effectively a set of studies and portraits rolled into one. This is partly because Ravensbrück included such a diverse population. Women were sent there because they were German Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or “asocials” (prostitutes or lesbians), members of the French, Polish, Norwegian or Dutch resistance, Russian POWs, gypsies, or Hungarian Jews. She covers topics including resistance within the camp, how ingenious attempts at communication with the outside world were successful but were then ignored, cruel medical experiments, and the behaviour of the female guards.

If This is a Woman argues that research into the Holocaust and Nazi war crimes have tended to underplay or ignore altogether the dimension of gender. Of course, the experiences both of men and women varied enormously (as Helm’s book shows for women under conditions of extreme stress). Providing that sweeping generalisations are avoided, my own family experience leads me to agree with Helm that it is important to investigate the differences between male and female circumstances and behaviour under Nazi rule. Her monumental work will therefore prove vital in the future.

In its approach, Helm’s book has much in common with Sir Martin Gilbert’s classic study, The Holocaust. Gilbert based his book largely on interviews with survivors. He focused on reporting what happened rather than on analysing causes or presenting theoretical explanations. This approach is too often ignored. Like Gilbert, Helm has taken great trouble to meet and to give voice to the victims. By talking in depth to some of them, she has elicited information and opinions which standardised interviews conducted for all-purpose collections of testimonies tend to miss.

Those who have seen Helm’s recent writings on Gaza, which are highly critical of Israel, may be concerned about her credentials as an author on a Holocaust-related topic. Do her writings on the Middle East conflict mean that she has failed to draw the appropriate conclusions from her interviews with those who managed to survive the cruelties of Hitler’s concentration camp for women? Helm’s views on current Israeli politics do not impinge on her book. They are not mentioned or implied. She had been working on her study of Ravensbrück for years before recent bouts of fighting in Gaza. 

The book deserves to have a deep impact. For me it certainly has had a considerable effect because my grandmother was one of the Hungarian Jews who were brought there from Auschwitz where they had been selected as slave labourers. In the final days of the War she was one of thousands rescued by Count Folke Bernadotte in a deal with Himmler. She was taken to Sweden to recover. Like many, she died shortly afterwards. Bernadotte has never been recognised as a Righteous Gentile, an injustice which I hope will be remedied during the lifetime of his eldest son, who is now 84.

I have often discussed with my mother what happened to her and to her family in Hungary under the Nazis. The depth of Helm’s explorations have made me realise that there is so much more to ask  my mother and one of her closest friends, who was with my grandmother in Ravensbrück.