Ravensbruck Medical Experiments
Ravensbruck Concentration Camp Today
The Ravensbruck memorial in Père Lachaise
Ravensbruck Medical Experiments
From 1939 to 1945, about 132,000 women and children were held at Ravensbruck, the Nazi Concentration Camp for women. Only between 40,000 and 15,000 survived.
The women incarcerated at Ravensbruck were subject to inhumane and degrading cruelty on a daily basis. They were summarily ripped from their lives by the Nazis without appeal. They lost their husbands, their loved ones, their children and their communities. The SS tried to take their sanity and self-worth through routine degradation and cruelty. Most of them lost not only their freedom, but their will to survive and ultimately their lives.
They were used as slave labor for German industry (in particular Siemens Electrical, now the second largest electrical company in the world) and for the German military. They also worked in SS sweat shops making textiles and leather goods. Many were literally worked to death.
Sadly, all of this was not the worst that happened to some of these women. Some were also used as guinea pigs in sadistic SS medical experiments.
Ravensbruck Concentration Camp Site
The site of the WWII Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, 90 kilometres north of Berlin.
Life at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp
Women Getting Ready to Leave Ravensbruck with the Swedish Red Cross in April 1945
About Ravensbruck Concentration Camp
Ravensbruck was located approx 90 km (50 miles) north of Berlin, near the village of Ravensbruck, alongside Lake Schwedt ("Schwedtsee"). Lake Schwedt is strikingly scenic, but it is also the repository of the Ravensbruck women's ashes from the three nearby crematoria used by the Nazis.
Ravensbruck opened on 15 May, 1939. It stayed open until the inmates were liberated by the Soviet Army on 29-30 April, 1945. The Soviets discovered 3,500 extremely ill women at Ravensbruk when they arrived. The Nazis had forced most of the inmates to go on a death march (without a particular destination) just prior to liberation, leaving behind those too ill to march. Most of the women forced to go on the death march died from exhaustion or were shot on the roadside or while trying to escape.
In an odd twist, several thousand women escaped the death march because they were allowed to leave Ravensbruck between 22 and 28 April 1945. The vice-president of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Folke Bernadotte, had somehow managed to convince Heinrich Himmler to allow him to ferry the 7,500 inmates via Copenhagen to Malmo in Sweden, where they were provided with food, clothing and medical care. About 1,000 of these women were Jewish.
It is difficult to say exactly how many women and children were held captive and/or destroyed at Ravensbruck because the Nazis eradicated many of the records by fire during the final days of World War II. It is known that more than 800 of the estimated 132,000 inmates were children. Very few of the children survived the inhumane conditions and forced labor. Most of the babies born in the camp were brutally murdered by the guards shortly after birth, often in front of their mothers.
Who were the Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp?
During WW II, women and children were sent to Ravensbruck from every country in German-occupied Europe. The largest single national group were Polish women (about 48,500). About 8,000 came from France, hence the memorial pictured above at Père Lachaise. Many of the French women were freedom fighters. Unlike many of the other camps, Jewish people made up a minority of inmates, only about 15-20%.
The Ravensbruck women were incarcerated by the Nazis because they were:
- Jehovah's Witnesses
- Criminals (against the common law and the specially introduced Nazi laws)
- Social Democrats
- Resistance Fighters
Ironically, in 1943, Heinrich Himmler decreed that some of the women of Ravensbruck must cease slave labour for industry and instead work as forced prostitutes in order to aid the war effort.
Residential House for the Camp Guards
The Ravensbruck Guards
The camp administrators were all men from the SS but the camp staff had only female guards. The female guards were not SS members. They were female civilian employees of the SS. From 1942 onwards, Ravensbrück was one of the main training camps for female SS guards.
Medical Experiments at Ravensbruck
Ravensbruck Medical Experiments
Starting in 1942, SS doctors selected about 80 women to be their patients in medical experiments. These women were mostly Polish. The doctors later selected some Gypsy women for more experiments. The women were:
- infected with gas gangrene
- infected with bacterial inflammations
- forced to receive bone transplants and bone amputations
- force treated with sulfonamide
- sterilized in various ways
- forced to have their bones broken, dissected and grafted
- made to have simulated battlefield injuries
Many of the women died as a result.
Ravensbruck Medical Experiments - Sulfonamide
Sulfonamide drugs were the first manufactured antimicrobial drugs. The sulfur based drugs were the first step in developing antibiotic drugs. Sulfonamides were a group of drugs developed in the 1930s in Germany. The huge German chemical company IG Farben, at the time a component of Bayer AG, made the first sulfonamide drug - Prontosil.
The women of Ravensbruck were first deliberately wounded and then infected before the application of sulfonamides. They either had gas bacilli or gas gangrene injected into the deliberate wound or were exposed to staphylococci to promulgate infection and inflammation. Some of the women had incisions made into their calf muscles. The incised wounds were then packed with material soaked in bacteria and sewn up. Treatment with sulfonamides was excruciating and resulted in permanent disfigurement and infirmity.
Ravensbruck Concentration Camp - Part 1
Ravensbruck Medical Experiments - Simulated Battlefield Wounds
A particularly gruesome suite of medical experiments involved simulated battlefield leg wounds being inflicted on the women. Many of these women died and were disposed of afterward (there were three nearby crematoria - one of them at the children's camp). Any that survived these experiments were left disfigured and crippled.
There was an idea that the best way to simulate the battlefield wounds would be to shoot the women. However this was discarded and instead they made incisions and tied off blood vessels in order to stop the flow of blood to the wounded areas, to create a more 'realistic' wound.
Ravensbruck Concentration Camp Part 2
Forced Labour at Ravensbruck
Ravensbruck Medical Experiments - Breaking Bones
Other operations forced on the women consisted of breaking their bones and dissecting them. Then bones, muscles and nerves were grafted onto the woman, sometimes from another person. The pain was unbearable. Sometimes the SS doctors would amputate limbs in their operations. The operations left the women who survived the operations with lifelong infirmity and permanent deformity.
Ravensbruck Concentration Camp Part 3
Ravensbruck Medical Experiments - Forced Sterilizations
The SS doctors used the incarcerated Gypsy women to experiment in order to find a better method of sterilization. Many of the sterilization experiments were also carried out on children.
Ravensbruck Panel Exhibit
Witness at War Crimes Trials Show Leg Scars
The Doctors Findings
The results of the Ravensbruck Medical Experiments experiments were widely discussed at an SS medical officers and civilian doctors conference in Berlin on May 24-26, 1943. They did not hide the fact that several of the 'patients' had died from the operations. German doctors at the conference questioned the SS doctors on points of professional interest but did not protest the inhumanity of the experiments.
Fighting Back Against the Nazis
The women of Ravensbruck were not often able to physically fight back against the Nazi SS, but they did engage in constant spiritual resistance. They held language, history and geography classes. They improvised theater and music and they shared recipes, preparing imaginary meals. They sabotaged the V1 and V2 military rockets they were assembling at the Siemens Factory. They kept secret records of what the Nazis were doing. In the early stages of Ravensbruck there was even a secret newspaper.
The Horror of Ravensbruck
Ravensbruck is one of the German concentration camps that has the least remaining German records. Much of today's Ravensbruck information comes from the survivors and the records made after liberation. The efforts of organizations like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum ensure that we never lose vital information about places like Ravensbruck. Some believe that if we do not honor the past, the future could hold more of the same sort of horror.
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- Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Ravensbruck.html
- Ravensbruck, 74 Cases of Medical Experiments Conducted upon the Polish Political Prisoners in the Concentration Camp: http://individual.utoronto.ca/jarekg/Ravensbruck/Experiments.html
- Women in history: http://womenineuropeanhistory.org/index.php?title=Additional_Information_on_the_Medical_Experiments_Performed_in_Ravensbr%C3%BCck
- US Holocaust Memorial Museum: http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005199
- Ravensbrück and the Unique Experience of Women During the Holocaust: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/outlook/library/articles/antiSemitism/p05RavensbruckWomen.htm
© 2013 Mel Jay