In 1938, Heinrich Himmler ordered the construction of Ravensbrück, a concentration camp exclusively for women.
Around an hour north of Berlin, Ravensbrück also served as a training camp for female Nazi overseers, many of whom would go on to be chief wardresses at other concentration camps. From 1939 to 1945, over 100,000 women from 20 European countries died at Ravensbrück, with the largest portion of inmates hailing from Poland. By the time of the camp’s liberation, only 15,000 prisoners were still alive. The camp memorial’s estimated figure of 132,000 women who were in the camp during the war includes about 48,500 from Poland, 28,000 from the Soviet Union, almost 24,000 from Germany and Austria, nearly 8,000 from France, and thousands from other countries including a few from the United Kingdom and the United States. More than 20,000 of the total were Jewish, approximately 15%. 85% were from other races and cultures. More than 80 percent were political prisoners. Many prisoners were employed as slave labor by Siemens & Halske. From 1942 to 1945, the Nazis undertook medical experiments to test the effectiveness of sulfonamides.
In the spring of 1941, the SS established a small adjacent camp for male inmates, who built and managed the camp’s gas chambers in 1944. Of some 130,000 female prisoners who passed through the Ravensbrück camp, about 50,000 perished; some 2,200 were killed in the gas chambers.
Conditions at Ravensbrück were initially acceptable with some expressing wonder at the manicured lawns, peacock-filled birdhouses and flower beds that adorned the great square.
Soon enough, disease and famine struck, and SS guards began to conduct medical experiments on inmates, where they would cut into and infect bones, muscles and nerves and introduce wood or glass into them. Others were sterilized.
The following images of Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp present a stark image of the brutality of the Nazi regime — but, more than that, they are a testament to the strength of these women, who would make jewelry, write comic operettas about camp life and organize secret education programs to remind themselves of their humanity. As incredibly, in some photos the female inmates muster the energy and the courage to smile.