Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

Case Study: Ravensbrück

A photograph secretly taken by Ravensbrück prisoners, showing a group of Polish civilian women and children arriving at Ravensbrück from Warsaw after the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. c.October 1944.

A photograph secretly taken by Ravensbrück prisoners, showing a group of Polish civilian women and children arriving at Ravensbrück from Warsaw after the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. c.October 1944.

Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ravensbrück was a concentration camp built by the Nazis to imprison and exploit female prisoners in the Third Reich, often through forced labour. The construction of Ravensbrück began in November 1938. The camp was located on the edge of a small village, approximately fifty miles outside of Berlin  in north-east Germany, and surrounded by a forest and a lake.

At first, the main camp was made up of eighteen barracks, holding a maximum of approximately three thousand prisoners. In 1943 a crematorium was added, and in 1945 a gas chamber was also built just outside the camp.

In 1943, a number of connected sub-camps  were also established, usually near to factories where the prisoners were forced to work. By 1944, these sub-camps held over 70,000 predominantly female prisoners.

Ravensbrück was staffed by male SS administrators and female guards.


Ravensbrück held a range of different prisoners, who had been imprisoned for different reasons, and who came from over forty different countries.

Like much of the concentration camp system, Ravensbrück was originally built to imprison ‘ asocials ’, political prisoners and Jehovah’s Witnesses. As the Second World War continued, Ravensbrück increasingly also held Jews and Roma from German-occupied countries such as Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungary and Slovakia.

Although Ravensbrück was built specifically to hold women, a small camp for men was created in April 1941. The men imprisoned in this camp were forced to carry out hard labour such as building extensions to the main camp and new sub-camps.

As well as adults, children were imprisoned in the camp. In total, 881 children feature on the camp’s arrival lists.


Charlotte Delbo

Charlotte Delbo (1913 – 1985) was a French writer. Following the Nazi occupation of France, Delbo and her husband, George Dudach joined the French resistance where they helped to print and distribute anti-Nazi material.

On 2 March 1942, Delbo and Dudach were arrested at their apartment in Paris. Dudach was shot on 23 May 1942, while Delbo was imprisoned in internment camps in France until 23 January 1943 when she was deported to Auschwitz. After being imprisoned in the camp for a year, Delbo was transferred to Ravensbrück, where she was eventually liberated in April 1945. After a brief convalescence in Sweden under the supervision of the International Red Cross, Delbo returned home to France in the early summer of 1945.

After the war, Delbo wrote several short memoirs detailing her experiences and struggles to recover. These memoirs, entitled None of Us Will Return (1965), Useless Knowledge (1970) and The Measure of Our Days (1985) were published collectively as Auschwitz and After in 1985.

Conditions inside


Initially, conditions inside Ravensbrück were very difficult but bearable. Prisoners slept in three tiered wooden bunks, and each barrack had one washroom and three toilets. In 1940, prisoners’ clothing and bedding were changed regularly and while food was not plentiful there was ‘just about enough’. [Nik Wachsmann, KL, A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (Great Britain: Little, Brown, 2015) 227].

Prisoners inside the camp were forced to work, and in late 1939 large tailors’ workshops were created where prisoners made uniforms. Although prisoners had to work long hours, jobs were often indoors and not as physically exhausting as construction or quarry work. As a result of these conditions ‘almost all women survived Ravensbrück during the early war years’ [Nik Wachsmann, KL, 228].


In 1942, the number of people imprisoned in Ravensbrück increased. The camp became severely overcrowded and conditions inside became significantly worse.

By June 1941, approximately 5,000 people were imprisoned in Ravensbrück – almost double the camp’s initial capacity. In 1943, 10,000 new prisoners arrived, and by January 1944 approximately 17,300 prisoners were imprisoned in the camp. By the start of 1945, the camp’s population rose to as many as 50,000 people.

As prisoner numbers increased, food rations decreased and food became extremely scarce. Disease was widespread because of the unsanitary conditions, and in January 1945 a typhus  epidemic broke out.

Between August 1942 and August 1943, 86 prisoners were also subjected to forced medical experiments. SS doctors carried out procedures such as amputations, bone transplants, sterilisation and chemical treatments on the women. The procedures were generally very painful and sometimes fatal.  Some female prisoners from Ravensbrück were also sexually exploited and forced to work in camp brothels.

In January 1942 an extermination programme known as ‘14f13’ began. Once selected, prisoners were transferred to Bernburg or Hartheim  in Austria and murdered in gas chambers. In total, during the spring of 1942, approximately 1900 prisoners from Ravensbrück (1600 women and 300 men) were murdered through this programme.

In early 1945, a gas chamber  was built just outside of Ravensbrück. Between January 1945 and the camp’s liberation in April 1945, the Nazis used this gas chamber to murder between 5,000 and 6,000 prisoners. Other prisoners were also murdered at Ravensbrück in shootings.


Over the course of its existence, thousands of people were employed at Ravensbrück.

The largest section of staff were the female Nazi camp guards, whose main job was to oversee and discipline the prisoners. Although not officially members of the SS , these guards came under SS  authority.

The first commandant of the camp was Günther Tamaschke . On 1 January 1940, Tamaschke was replaced by Max Koegel who remained commandant until he was transferred to another camp on 20 August 1942. The final camp commandant from 1942 until the camp’s liberation in 1945 was Fritz Suhren .

Doctors and nurses were also employed in the camp. As well as treating prisoners for diseases, the medical staff also carried out sterilisations and human experiments on those imprisoned in the camp, and administered lethal injections .



Almost all of those imprisoned in Ravensbrück were forced to work. The jobs that prisoners were assigned to either took place in the camp itself, in the immediate local area, or in nearby sub-camps .

Prisoners were allocated a variety of different jobs, including sewing, weaving, building, admin, typing, cooking, cleaning, sex work and factory work.

Of these, one of the most physically demanding work assignments was the street building unit. Throughout its existence, Ravensbrück was constantly under construction. Those who were assigned to the building unit were forced to spend long hours digging the sandy soil, moving it from one area of the camp to another, and flattening out areas of ground by pulling extremely heavy stone rollers (which took around a dozen women to move).

One of the main organisations which utilised labour from Ravensbrück prisoners was the SS Textile Factory (also known as Texled), where goods such as prisoner uniforms, SS uniforms, other clothing garments and straw items (baskets, mats, handbags) were produced in extremely difficult conditions. By September 1942, the factory, which opened in 1940, employed approximately 60% of those imprisoned in Ravensbrück.

Other work assignments were regarded as ‘privileged’, because they allowed inmates benefits or to work in comparatively safe conditions. Those who worked as secretaries in the SS offices, for example, worked inside and were allowed daily baths and extra uniforms. Similarly, the approximately 250 women who worked in the camp kitchens by 1944 had access to extra food and vegetables, as did those who worked in the camp’s vegetable garden, or for local farmers.


By January 1945, Ravensbrück’s population had grown to around 50,000 prisoners (approximately 45,000 women and 5,000 men).

In March and April 1945, as the Soviet Army closed in, the Nazis began to evacuate tens of thousands of these prisoners on ‘death marches’. Most were marched 70km north towards the sub-camp of Malchow. Of those forced on this ‘death march’, approximately one third died or managed to escape on route.

On 30 April 1945, the advance guard of the Red Army arrived in Ravensbrück, and the 3000 prisoners remaining in the camp were liberated.

While liberation brought freedom, it did not always bring about an immediate improvement in conditions. At the sub-camp of Neustadt-Glewe , for example, the majority of the female survivors were raped by the liberating Red Army  soldiers.

In Ravensbrück, the Red Army  forced local townspeople to help clean the camp and bury those who had died. The camp was then transformed into a hospital to care for the remaining inmates. In June 1945, those remaining were transferred to other locations, and the camp became a Soviet military base.

Of the approximately 123,000 women and children who were in the camp between 1939 and 1945, around 25,000 died at Ravensbrück.

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