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BOOK REVIEW


The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp by Dr. Rochelle G. Saidel"A LIFELONG DEATH SENTENCE" by Ruth Almog


Note: This review originally appeared in Haartz – Books and Culture Section, Friday November 12, 2004 (In Hebrew and English print and electronic editions – this version from Internet)

Inge by Inge Joseph Bleier and David E. Gumpert, William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, Michigan, 291 pages, $24.
The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp by Rochelle G. Saidel, The University of Wisconsin Press, 278 pages, $29.95.

What do Inge Joseph's autobiographical story and Rochelle G. Saidel's study on the Ravensbruck concentration camp for women have in common? Time and gender. Saidel's book, which is the candidate for an important prize in the United States, brings to light for the first time the stories of the Jewish women who were imprisoned in Ravensbruck.

Ravensbruck was a concentration camp for women of different nationalities, which was located 80 kilometers north of Berlin. Apparently, during the five years of its existence, 132,000 women were imprisoned there. Of them, only 12,000 survived at the end of the war. Twenty thousand were sent to be killed at other camps, especially in euthanasia installations, and 91,000 just didn't make it. When the Soviet army liberated the Ravensbruck camp, only 3,000 sick and dying prisoners were found there. At least 7,500 women had been evacuated from there earlier, to Sweden, by Count Folke Bernadotte, who headed the Swedish Red Cross.

Count Bernadotte endeavored to save Jews to the best of his ability, but in the end he was assassinated by Jews in the land of Israel. When you think about Bernadotte's projects involving finding refuge for the Jews of Denmark, sending 70,000 food packages to Jews in the camps and arranging convoys of white buses that took people out of the camps to Sweden; when you think about his efforts to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians and about how he succeeded in achieving a truce for one month in the War of Independence and suggested plans for peace that both sides rejected; and when you think about how he was assassinated, together with his French aide as a result of his aim to bring about peace in the land of Israel - it is impossible not to be disgusted and not to see how little has changed since then. Bernadotte, a man who was among the most worthy of the title "Righteous Gentile," was murdered - just like former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - by the concept that peace is unthinkable.

Saidel began to take an interest in the Jewish women who were taken to Ravensbruck after she was invited to East Germany in 1980 and was present at the dedication of a memorial at the camp. She found out that 20 percent of the women at Ravensbruck had been Jewish, yet they nevertheless were not represented in the monument. Therefore, out of a decision to right this wrong, she began to look for survivors who were still alive. For the purposes of her research she interviewed about 100 women, and in her book she published materials - testimonies and photographs - that had never been published before.

Gender advantages
Imprisoned at Ravensbruck were Polish, Belgian, Gypsy, German, French, Dutch, Norwegian and Yugoslav women, as well as a few British and even some American women. They were imprisoned for political, criminal or religious reasons. There were women in the camp from the Jehovah's Witnesses sect, for example. There were communist activists, like Margarete Buber-Neumann, who survived, according to Saidel, only because she was not Jewish. Or her friend at the camp, Franz Kafka's beloved Milena Jasenska, who did not survive. Or communist Olga Benario, who was sent to Germany by the Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas after she helped foment a revolution in Brazil. Or Dr. Kathe Pick Leichter, the socialist activist from Vienna. There were French Resistance activists at Ravensbruck, and women who were imprisoned for reasons of race, like Gypsies or Jews. There were those who were imprisoned for being lesbians. And there were also women who had committed crimes.

Saidel narrates the stories of the Jewish women at the camp, which did not serve as a death camp except toward the end of the war, but the conditions that prevailed there were inhumane and the punishments there were terrible: whippings, an ice room and solitary confinement, and above all slave labor, starvation and disease. The women in the camp were united by solidarity. They gave one another gifts, which they prepared secretly. They also took care of the children - there were prisoners who had arrived with their offspring. The women were characterized by special concern for girls and young adolescents. The discussions about food and the writing of recipes helped them remember home and improved their mood. They drew and they wrote poems. In Saidel's opinion, the exchange of recipes and the making of small gifts, like embroidered handkerchiefs, are unique to women. Other dangers lay in wait for the women, as rape and prostitution were common, but they enjoyed certain advantages of their gender.

Saidel tells the stories of about 60 women, among them the story of Sali Solomon Daugherty, now of Jaffa, who arrived in Ravensbruck from Amsterdam when she was only eight years old, with her mother and her aunt. Her life was saved thanks to a German woman, a Jehovah's Witnesses who secretly gave her bread, and thanks to another German woman, a Nazi nurse, who gave her jam to eat that she had stolen. On the day of the liberation by the Red Cross, the child was separated from her mother. That same day they had been made to march by the Nazis near the gas chamber that had been built in the camp over time. Daugherty told Saidel: "I remember the smoke .... We were skeletons. Don't think that we were humans. We were just birds."

For three days the white bus traveled until it reached Malmo in Sweden. The Americans bombed the convoy. The driver threw Daugherty into the forest to save her, but he himself was killed. The child had spent more than three years in Ravensbruck and when she arrived in Malmo she was very ill. For six weeks she was in quarantine and she then rejoined her mother, who had also survived.

A few bright stars
Many of the women interviewed by Saidel were very young women when they arrived at Ravensbruck. Saidel tells story after story, altogether about 60 of them. When I finished reading the book I remembered things that Israeli philosopher Prof. Asa Kasher once said about how the story of the individual has a stronger effect than the stories of thousand or millions. This in no way detracts from the value of the comprehensive research that Saidel has done, but rather is an apology for the fact that the memory is not able to take in so many stories - although I will mention that of Inge Joseph.

Inge, a girl from Darmstadt who grew up in a wealthy home and whose father was arrested after going bankrupt, tells mainly about herself, about her family, about her parents who had the good sense to send her sister to the United States in time, but did not do this for her; about her grandmothers and about her uncles, one of whom, a wealthy man who could have saved her, abandoned her. She recounts the journey from Cologne via a transport of children to Belgium, about her life as a girl in a children's home in Brussels, about the move to France, about the children's home at Chateau de la Hille at the foothills of Pyrenees, about the time in the French concentration camp Le Vernet and about her return to the children's home.

She tells about the devotion of the director of the children's home, a Swiss woman who had been sent to do this holy work by the Swiss Red Cross, and describes her first escape to Switzerland when she was captured with her girlfriends and managed to escape from the Germans, leaving her girlfriends behind, captives in their hands. Inge had hesitations, but the will to live was stronger. Of course the question of whether the girls' fate would have been different had she not escaped is a futile question. Had she not escaped, she would have been sent together with them to Drancy. But this answer was not enough to console her. Her second escape succeeded, thanks to French people from the Resistance who helped her cross the border.

Within the horror of Inge's youth a few good people stand out, who devoted themselves to the work of rescue like bright stars. But hers is not a simple story. She faced moral dilemmas with which she could not cope and the separation from her beloved boyfriend, who was sent to Auschwitz and perished. She never overcame this separation because to some extent she felt guilty for his death. Her life as an adult woman was persecuted by nightmares dominated by her memories and oppressive feelings of guilt, although she had done no one any wrong. The very fact that she remained alive was guilt too heavy to bear, and in the end, in the U.S., after she chalked up many successes in her studies, in her writing and in doing work to benefit others, the guilty feelings ruined her life and she committed suicide. She left behind this book, which was edited and completed by her nephew David Gumpert. "Inge" is one of the frankest and saddest books I have ever read about Jewish children during World War II. Inge remained alive despite the deportation, despite the separation from her father and her mother and her sister. She overcame the fear, the hunger and the imprisonment, but she did not really survive. The story of this sad life, a life of a harsh and prolonged struggle to live, which ended with giving life up out of choice and free will arouses, as in many similar cases - Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Jean Amery - some very difficult questions.

Ruth Almog

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