“Worse than animals”
It was one of the most brutal places during the Nazi era: in 1939, the SS began building the largest women’s concentration camp in the Brandenburgian village of Ravensbrück. The first female inmates were transported there in the spring of 1939. Until 1945, more than 120,000 women were imprisoned in the concentration camp Ravensbrück. They were persecuted as Communists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romany and others. Many of the women were executed in the camp. To this day, it has not been possible to determine their exact number.
Braulia Cánovas Mulero came to the concentration camp Ravensbrück from the French Compiègne-Royallieu internment camp in late January 1944, in a large transport of nearly 1,000 women crowded into cattle cars. “They stuffed us in more than 60 to a car, sometimes 70 and 80…. We travelled for three days in those cars, we lost consciousness, worse than animals.” That is how Braulia later remembered the transport as the beginning of her ordeal of imprisonment and forced labor.
When they arrived in Ravensbrück, the camp SS went about their usual procedure for robbing the inmates of all dignity and individuality: the women had to undress and shower in front of the guards and have their bodies shaved; then they were given inmates’ clothing and numbers. Braulia later recalled how shocked she was at the sight of her friends who finished before her – and the paradoxical fears it triggered in her:
“Because their hair had been cut off, I didn’t recognize them; when I saw them that way, without hair and completely naked …, a feeling of sympathy awakened in me, a feeling of horror and – why shouldn’t I say it – a feeling of vanity. I thought: ‘Do I have to see myself that way as a 23-year-old? It’s horrible; it’s the absolute negation of our selves.’ And I withdrew so far into myself, into my negation, that the fear of having my hair cut off was stronger than the fear of all the physical and mental suffering that awaited me.” *
By 1944, the Ravensbrück camp had long also served as a forced labor camp, where the war production effort was to be redoubled under brutal working conditions. The grounds encompassed sewing and weaving workshops. Adjacent to the camp, the Siemens & Halske company had built factory halls for the production of telephones and radios. Up to 2,000 women worked there. After months spent in quarantine and weakened by illness, Braulia had to carry out heavy physical labor in a sand pit: “If I had had to do that work any longer, I’d have killed myself or thrown myself onto the electric fence because of the physical torment it caused me; I no longer had the strength to endure it.”
In June 1944, Braulia was transferred to the Hanover-Hannover-Limmer subcamp, again to perform forced labor. In the winter of 1943/44, the Nazis had set about establishing a dense network of more than 1,000 sub- and satellite camps around their main camps. These facilities were usually built adjacent to state- and privately owned production plants of strategic importance. Hannover-Limmer was a camp solely for women at the Continental rubber works. There the inmates were employed in the production of gas masks. The inmates’ barracks had actually been designed for 500 persons, but after the arrival of Braulia’s transport they accommodated more than 1,000 women.
In Hannover-Limmer, Braulia was once again subject to the arbitrary harassments of camp imprisonment. There were countless rules, in part contradictory and almost impossible to follow. For example, the inmates were to see to it that their shoes didn’t get dirty. They were under threat of draconian punishment if they broke a rule. There were also the dreaded roll calls that went on for hours, a kind of collective punishment. “We spent January 1 standing in the snow in front of the barrack as punishment for one wrong word. I don’t know what had happened,” Braulia recalled.
Despite the severe punishments, the women resisted whenever possible. In the factory they even carried out “collective sabotage”. Braulia and her fellow inmates regularly brought production to a halt. “We all put our feet on the assembly belt together, causing the fuses to blow; that meant 30 to 40 minutes standstill…. We did that as often as we had the opportunity.”*
The SS cleared the camp on April 6, 1945, sending the women on foot to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, located 70 kilometers (43 miles) away.
[*] Neus Catalá: “In Ravensbrück ging meine Jugend zu Ende”: Vierzehn spanische Frauen berichten über ihre Deportation in deutsche Konzentrationslager (Berlin: Verlag Walter Frey, 1994). Also exists in French and Spanish.