An unnamed Austrian woman composed these lines, shortly before her execution:
Whatever threads fate may weave/ we must keep our heads high and nerves taut/ as nothing is able to break us down, as long as we remain true to who we are … so as long as we can/ we want to bend our backs to the hardness, the pain/ and faithfully wait for our lives /that wait for us on the other side of the barracks.
These words, written in the concentration camp Ravensbrück, were intended to comfort the unlucky women imprisoned there. Ravensbrück was the only major Nazi camp intended almost exclusively for female prisoners. Located north of Berlin, in a beautiful wooded area near a small town of the same name, the camp was ordered to be built in November 1938 and was completed in April 1939. In May 1939 the first thousand women arrived here from the camp Lichtenberg, which was being shut down. The inmate population expanded over the years, as prisoners were transferred from other camps and ghettos that were being closed down. Between 1939 and 1945 approximately 132,000 female prisoners from more than twenty nations passed through, many with children and infants. In 1941, several thousand men were added to the camp population, isolated in a small sub-camp built adjacent to the primary facility. The Red Army reached the camp at the end of April 1945; by that point, the fleeing Nazis had managed to destroy almost all of the camp records and paperwork.
The prisoners of Ravensbrück
The defining factor of the inmates of Ravensbrück was their gender. In the early months of the camp, the inmates included many German and Polish women. As the camp increased in size, there were substantial numbers of Jewish and Roma women from all over Europe, as well as large populations of political prisoners from Poland, Germany, Austria and the USSR. Not only were the prisoners themselves mostly women, but the staff as well. Ravensbrück served as the primary training camp for female SS guards, and many of the most infamous and brutal of the female Nazi guards spent time here.
Daily Life in Ravensbrück
As in the vast majority of large Nazi camps, daily life at Ravensbrück was harsh. Already inadequate food and housing was pushed to unbearable levels with the constant influx of prisoners. Ravensbrück was also a labour camp, and all prisoners deemed healthy enough to work were forced to spend 12-hour days doing hard physical labour, many of them at a large factory run by the company Siemens. Selections were routinely conducted to ‘weed out’ those women not fit enough to fulfill these exhausting assignments. Medical experiments were also carried out: many died from the operations, but some survived, scarred and crippled, and testified against the doctors involved after the war. In addition, Ravensbrück was the main supplier of women for the brothels set up at many major Nazi camps toward the end of the war. Although women often volunteered for these positions, hoping they would be spared the most difficult physical labour and perhaps receive better rations, most in fact died quickly, due to sexual abuse and the rampant spread of venereal disease.
Despite these harsh conditions, the tens of thousands of women interned at Ravensbrück over the years did establish nationally- and politically-based networks of support. They also engaged in secret religious services, committed acts of sabotage in the factories, worked to save the lives of sick comrades, and engaged in multiple forms of cultural production. In the early months of the camp’s existence, when the prisoner population was still fairly small, it was relatively easy for the SS to maintain strict control over the daily lives of the prisoners. During this time, it was very difficult to even meet up with other prisoners during the rare free hours; occasionally some women would successfully sneak away, always at great risk to themselves, and recite poetry, discuss politics, or sing together in small groups. Once the war began, although daily life worsened in terms of food and housing, the SS also lessened the extent of its control. It was harder to keep track of the movements of all the prisoners, and punishment for relatively minor infractions decreased. The relatively high number of German-speaking women in the camp also eased the development of cultural activities, as the guards tended to be more lenient with them.
Ravensbrück included many artists and intellectuals amongst its population. Especially notable were the large numbers of Polish intelligentsia sent here after the occupation, as well as groups of Czech students. Usually cultural activity amongst the women would begin during the initial quarantine phase, when new arrivals were restricted to their barracks for several weeks. Many composed poems, both memorised in their heads and recorded on scraps of paper, and some even managed to put together booklets recording prisoners’ poems, songs, and drawings. In addition to this poetic activity, there was a variety of music-making at Ravensbrück.
At Ravensbrück, as at Dachau and several other camps, the Nazis used large loudspeakers as a way to harass and manipulate prisoners. On Sunday afternoons, during free time, the guards broadcast music programs at maximum volume. Most women experienced these broadcasts as a distinct form of torture; the only positive side effect was that the volume could conceal whispered conversations. For some music-lovers, however, the radio could offer moments of pleasure amongst the anguish of camp life:
We suffered through the frequent military marches and war songs of the Hitler soldiers in order to occasionally be able to hear Schubert and Mozart.
In addition to this forced listening to music, women were also forced to march in the main clearing and sing German songs. As most were not native German speakers, this was not only linguistically difficult but also exhausting and humiliating. There are also records of a few more talented musicians and singers who were forced by the SS to give private concerts.
Voluntary cultural activities
The many poems written in Ravensbrück were often set to music in order to aid memorisation and to increase the number of people who could participate in communal events. Many barracks had their own repertoire of songs, ranging from children’s songs to political hymns to opera.
Towards the end of the war, SS policy toward music relaxed considerably. In 1944 singing was no longer officially illegal, and the guards allowed a chorus to exist. 1944 also saw the formalisation of international solidarity networks established by women prisoners. These groups organised political education programs and cultural events, and as the end of the war neared, they became increasingly active. Often their events relied on song and dance to communicate ideas and share information, as language differences made lectures and discussion difficult.
Many of the Russian women interned in the camp were political prisoners, and they were some of the most active inmates in the underground political resistance. Among them were also several entertainers and singers, and they sometimes held events on Sunday afternoons. Gathered together in a barracks, with a few prisoners appointed as lookouts, they sat in a circle and
began to sing. One of them sprang on the floor, a second joined in, then another, and after a while the entire block swayed with the infectious rhythm, the stomping, clapping, crying, the tempo got faster and faster and eventually forced everyone to join the dance.
In addition to the active Communists, there was also a strong presence of devout Russian Orthodox women in the camp who practised their faith despite strict laws restricting such activities. Former inmate Lisolette Thumser-Weill remembered the Christmas of 1944, when three Russian women came to her barracks in the middle of the night with candles, clad in prayer scarves made of potato sacks (either of these offenses would have meant the death penalty if they were caught). Travelling from barracks to barracks, they sang Russian folk songs and Christmas hymns.
The community of Czech prisoners included not only committed communists and socialists, but also skilled professional artists and musicians. Although they worked long hours at nearby factories, the women would form small groups for music-making in their barracks and practise their repertoire in the evenings and on Sundays. They also put together carefully-assembled and decorated songbooks. They were especially fond of the progressive and leftist songs of the 'liberated theatre' of Prague, and the anti-fascists songs of Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich; younger women also loved to sing the swing-influenced music of Jaroslav Jezek. At the end of 1942, the Czech women organised a singing group that performed clandestinely in different barracks, sometimes spontaneously singing on the central square when there were no guards nearby. Their singing was sometimes accompanied by the dances of the Prague dancer Nina Jirsikova.
It was not until December 1944 that the SS gave permission for the prisoners to organise a small band. Since all of their belongings had been taken when they entered the camp, none had instruments. For the first time the SS allowed several women to enter the barracks of confiscated goods to retrieve instruments. They deliberately kept their playing at an amateur level, fearing that if the SS heard them they would demand music at their parties and brothel visits. Their music-making was intended for the ears of other prisoners, and they learned not only Russian and German, but Polish, Norwegian and Yugoslavian songs in order to increase international solidarity.
Other musical activities
The Czech musicians organised several ‘international’ shows, where women from different barracks would perform songs in their native languages. Though such shows were illegal and held in secret, they were extremely successful. There were also several other small singing groups and choruses that existed during the camp’s existence, and countless individual women who composed and sang in the barracks, factories and fields of Ravensbrück. Some songs survived, both in the small books of music and poems the prisoners painstakingly assembled, and in the memories of the survivors.
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