Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ravensbruck: Everyday Life in a Women's Concentration Camp - Jack G. Morrison

Summary: Ravensbruck was a labour camp within German borders, not far from Berlin. In the beginning it was, by camp standards, a better camp, designed for indoctrination and industrial production, but by the end of the war it was just another overcrowded locus of horror complete with gas chamber. The result is a fascinating case study of how women of different nationalities and social backgrounds coped for years with lack of food and basic sanitation, illnesses, prejudices and death by carving out their own cultural life. (Summary and pic from

My Review: I feel a little guilty saying this, but I loved this book. There’s something that feels really wrong about saying that you enjoy a book about a concentration camp, but I found Ravensbruck absolutely fascinating.

After reading Rose Under Fire (see review here), I wanted to know more about Ravensbruck. Because Wein had so many great resources, I was able to totally geek out like I love to do when I read a really interesting book, and I did all kinds of research about Ravensbruck. This book was a gem. It changed my view on concentration camps.  Don’t get me wrong—they’re still horrible (and I’m still hoping that Hitler is burning in hell), but I had no idea the depth and breadth of what went on there, what it was like, and especially how an exclusively women’s concentration camp differed so greatly from a men’s concentration camp.

First off, this book is really well written. It’s non-fiction and Morrison obviously did a ton of research (a lot of it firsthand from writings and interviews of women who survived the camp), but the writing isn’t so heavy or the language so dense that you have to slog through it. It read very quickly. Admittedly, this may be because it was just so fascinating. But I guess if that’s the reason, it doesn’t matter, right? Really, it’s completely accessible.

Secondly, I loved the description of the culture of the camp. I had no idea the humanity and caring, and also the prejudices and hatred that existed within the camp—both between the inmates and the staff. It is just so much more complex than I ever knew. I had no idea there were so many nationalities and cultures represented.  And I loved the women’s camp perspective of a concentration camp. It makes sense that a woman’s camp would function differently than a men’s camp, and this book beautifully illustrates this very unique situation.

Another thing that I found so amazing about this book was the art work and pictures. There were a few pictures of the camp, and the author describes early on that these cannot be trusted as many of them were taken by the SS to display to the Red Cross and various organizations concerned with the well-beings of captors.  The art was drawn by some of the women inmates. Obviously much of this was destroyed as it became clear to the SS that Germany was losing and the war was imminent, but the surviving pictures are haunting and descriptive of what it was like. And oh, was it horrible. But there were good things, too, and I loved that the author not only gave you a sense of how horrible things were and how horrible some people were, but also that many retained their humanity and generosity even in the worst of times. It really is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the resilience of individuals.

This book was really a life-changing experience for me. I’ve always heard about concentration camps, I’ve read some WWII fic and limited non-fic, and I have been to the inspiring (and horrible) Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., but I was not prepared for having my eyes opened to what a camp was like—both the good and the bad. I felt like after all this time, I had just been viewing the people in the camps as inmates as a whole, and hadn’t really considered the day to day living or the culture that existed within the camp. I just can’t say enough about how amazing I thought this book was and what it did for me and my knowledge of concentration camps and the very tenor of the war. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is about concentration camps. There are horrible things, but they are all true and not sensationalized. The author treats the people with respect and dignity, despite them having experienced the worst atrocities one can imagine.

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