May 15th, 1939, was the date of the first transportation of 800 female prisoners to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. The camp had been built to the north of Berlin, in the immediate neighbourhood of the popular health resort of Fürstenberg.
During the National Socialist regime, there were ten camps in which women were imprisoned in separate sections. Ravensbrück, however, during its existence of nearly six years, was the only concentration camp in the German Reich that was specifically designated for women.
132,000 women from over 40 nations were sent to Ravensbrück and its sub-camps between May 1939 and April 1945.
Ravensbrück’s organization, setup and function did not distinguish it from other National Socialist concentration camps. After their arrival at the camp, the women were divided into different categories of prisoners by the SS administration. These categories were ordered hierarchically by the SS. Jewish as well as Sinti and Roma women were "racially" persecuted and had the lowest standing in this hierarchy. They were exposed to the despotism of the SS to a larger extent than all other groups of prisoners, and were more likely to suffer extermination
The guards of the outer concentration camp perimeter were SS men of the "Totenkopfwachsturmbanne" ("guard storm troopers of the skull"). In the interior, female wardens were used as guards. It was their incessant harassments that the inmates were mainly exposed to. Punishments were imposed extremely arbitrarily.
Accommodation and food for the prisoners were insufficient from the beginning and continuously worsened. In 1944, the barracks were crowded to three times their capacity. Provisions consisted of a cup of substitute coffee in the morning, and at noon and in the evening each half a litre of salt- and fat-free soup with half-rotten beetroots and 200 grams of bread.
The prisoners were assigned to work commandos and had to do forced labour for SS companies and German enterprises. Amongst others, Siemens, the Heinkel airplane company, the "Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke" and a number of small private enterprises near the camp profited from it.
In the camp administration, the SS installed prisoners for some functions: as clerks, in the sick quarters, in the "camp police" or as "Blockälteste" and "Stubenälteste" (fore(wo)men of the block or barrack room).
The sick quarters of the camp were scenes of torture and death. The medical SS personnel performed sterilizations and abortions on the prisoners, and abused many women for medical experiments. They also selected sick and weakened prisoners.
The SS also forced prisoners to be prostitutes in SS- "Wehrmacht" (army) and concentration camp prisoners’ brothels.
Not all prisoners were adult women. Children and teenagers were also imprisoned in Ravensbrück. They were deported to the concentration camp with their mothers, or were born there.
In 1941, a men’s camp was built in a separate area. 20,000 prisoners were held there until the end of April 1945.
In the spring of 1942, the systematic murder of Jewish and Roma and Sinti women also began in Ravensbrück. Until the end of 1944, so-called "black transports" lead to extermination sites outside the camp. In January 1945, the nearby "Jugendschutzlager Uckermark" (youth protection camp) was partially evacuated and used as a selection and extermination camp. The SS led the prisoners to believe that it was a "recovery camp" for the sick.
In 1944, living conditions once more deteriorated considerably. "Evacuation transports" from camps to the East, and deportation trains of Hungarian Jewish women and women from Warsaw arrived at Ravensbrück. For the newly arrived prisoners a tent was erected on the campgrounds.
Shortly before the end of the war, the Swedish Red Cross succeeded in negotiating the release of prisoners from German concentration camps. Thus 7,500 Ravensbrück prisoners, mainly from Scandinavia, Benelux, France and Poland, were saved in April 1945.
On April 27th, 1945, the SS drove 20,000 prisoners on "evacuation marches". The sick prisoners were left behind in the camp without power or water supply.
The first units of the Red Army reached the camp on May 1st, 1945. Regular units followed, and the women’s concentration camp was finally liberated.
For a lot of women, even the immediate attention they received came too late: they did not survive the effects of their imprisonment in the concentration camp.
Tens of thousands were murdered in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The exact number of women, children and men who died in Ravensbrück cannot be known: the greater part of the evidence was burned by the SS.
Some of the murderers of Ravensbrück stood trial at the Nuremberg doctor’s trial in 1946/47 and in Hamburg 1948. The SS leadership of Ravensbrück was sentenced to death, the lower ranks to several years of imprisonment. However, most of them were released prematurely.
The Ravensbrück Memorial Museum has been in existence since 1959. The former concentration camp grounds were adapted by the Soviet Army and used as a barracks until 1994.