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THE ORIGIN OF THE PROJECT MY PERSONAL INTEREST IN RAVENSBRüCK
THE ORIGIN OF THE PROJECT MY PERSONAL INTEREST IN RAVENSBRüCK
ch1.080 09/12/2006 12:52 PM Page 1 1 THE ORIGIN OF THE PROJECT: MY PERSONAL INTEREST IN RAVENSBRÜCK This book is the result of my part in the group effort of a team of women sociologists and historians that I initiated, to rescue from oblivion the memory of thousands of Jewish women, girls, and chil- dren imprisoned in the only Nazi concentration camp exclusively for women. The group effort resulted in a book with contributions by most of the members of the initial two teams, the Israeli and the German.1 The present book is the record of my own effort – my answer to the question: The Jewish prisoners of Ravensbrück: who were they? Let me report how I, a sociologist of gender and of work, got involved in this project that, although pertaining to women and thus to gender, lies on the borderline between history and sociology. I had not previously worked in the ﬁeld of Holocaust or antisemitism studies, and I was not engaged with their speciﬁc gender aspects, nor with the problems issuing from the combination of the evidence of the mem- oirs of individual survivors, published and unpublished, with that of documentary evidence, nor with the problems involved with the combination of the information contained in open-ended interviews, speciﬁc testimonies, and questionnaires, with police documents, documents of the Ravensbrück camp administration and that of other concentration camps and their outlying labor camps, their work details (AKDOs), the SS correspondence, and documents concerning the names of victims and perpetrators recorded after the War. It was a personal connection that in the ﬁrst place brought me to Ravensbrück, and to the realization that its Jewish prisoners, the dead and the surviving, and the story of their fate, had not yet been ch1.080 09/12/2006 12:52 PM Page 2 2 The Jewish Prisoners of Ravensbrück recorded systematically, and that were in danger of being irretrievably forgotten. The irony is that I was brought to this study of the Holocaust through my German, non-Jewish mother, who had been for ﬁve years a Ravensbrück prisoner. My mother was Margarete Buber-Neumann. Her daughters, my sister and I, had known nothing about her whereabouts and fate from 1938 until the end of the War. By then, she had survived two years in Soviet prisons and concentration camps and another ﬁve years in a Nazi concentration camp. Although I had known these facts since 1945, the name of the Nazi camp registered in my memory for the ﬁrst time two years later, when she related to me her memories of Ravensbrück when we ﬁrst met in Sweden in the spring of 1947 after all those years.At this time, she was busy writing the second half of her book Als Gefangene bei Stalin und Hitler, which was soon translated into 12 languages (published in English as Under Two Dictators) and brought her international fame. Much later, ﬁve years after her death, due to that book of hers I was invited to take part in the preparation of the planned commemora- tion reunion on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of Ravensbrück, its “liberation”. This is how I came to see, towards the end of 1994, for the ﬁrst time, the site of this camp, which is situated north of Berlin in an idyllic countryside of lakes and forests. The fact that, due to the Cold War, my mother had never returned to the site of Ravensbrück before her death in November 1989 is symptomatic of the political situation in Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall: it was inaccessible to her – as an anti-Communist, she was naturally persona non grata in the German Democratic Republic. She left Germany in 1933 as a Communist. I am one of her two daughters from her ﬁrst marriage, raised as Jews. We emigrated to Palestine with our paternal grandparents. Her second husband was Heinz Neumann – also a Jew – who had been a member of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party, and a member of the German Reichstag. He formed a left-wing faction whose slogan was “Hit the Fascists wherever you meet them” and opposed Stalin’s direct- ives to declare not the Nazis, but the Social Democrats, the main enemy of the German Communists.In 1931 he was removed by the Comintern from his post and thus from all German politics. In 1932, the Comintern sent him and my mother to Spain and one year later aban- doned them in Switzerland. In 1935, the Nazis demanded his extradi- tion on a trumped-up charge.They had no choice but to go to the Soviet ch1.080 09/12/2006 12:52 PM Page 3 The Origin of the Project 3 Union where, in 1937, he was arrested and secretly executed; she was arrested and sent to Siberia in 1938. Later, in 1940, she was forcibly handed over – together with about one thousand other German and Austrian refugees, mainly Communists and many of them Jews – to the Nazi authorities at the border that then separated Nazi and Soviet occupied Poland.2 Thus my mother,after learning ﬁrsthand the realities of the Soviet Communist regime and its prisons and concentration camps, was incarcerated for ﬁve more years in the Nazi “Hell for women”, Ravensbrück, this time as a suspected Soviet agent. Ostracized by the leadership of the German Communist Ravensbrück prisoners, she survived due to the support and friend- ship of many fellow prisoners, a few Communists who did not accept the dictate of their own leaders, and others, mainly Czech, French, and Norwegian non-Communist prisoners. Those who survived remained her friends for life. During these ﬁve years, she had learnt about many events in the camp and about the behavior of many of the SS guards, supervisors, and commanders. She knew hundreds of fellow prisoners from dif- ferent national groups, categories, and workplaces. Through her Czech close friend Milena Jesenska,3 she knew about the horrors of the camp Revier (hospital). She knew about the deportation of nearly all the Jewish women there to Bernburg in 1942, and to Auschwitz until October 1944; but even she had no ﬁrsthand contact with Jewish prisoners, since all contact between non-Jewish and Jewish prisoners was strictly forbidden. Jews and non-Jews worked most of the time in different work details and work sites. Therefore, her account can serve only partially as evidence for the construction of the present histor- ical account of the Jewish prisoners of Ravensbrück. It supplies much background material for this study. When I visited the campsite at the end of 1994 to take part in the preparations for the commemoration of 50 years since the liberation of the camp, considerable efforts had already been made by the gov- ernments of the Land Brandenburg and the Federal Republic of Germany to reform the memorial site and to open it to visitors and researchers from all over the world. Yet, when I learned that the gov- ernments of the Land Brandenburg and the Federal Government of Germany had decided to share the cost of travel and accommodation for all the survivors of Ravensbrück so that they could attend the com- memoration, and asked the members of the inviting committee how many survivors they were inviting from Israel, I was astonished to ch1.080 09/12/2006 12:52 PM Page 4 4 The Jewish Prisoners of Ravensbrück learn that there was only one. It turned out that only the name of this one woman, who had been the editor of the Mapai (Social Democrat) daily newspaper Davar, had been registered on the list of the International Ravensbrück Committee as an Israeli survivor. The Committee also did not possess any separate list of Jewish Ravensbrück survivors living in any country whatsoever.4 On returning to Israel, I went to the archive of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Authority) and asked for a list of Ravensbrück survivors. Yad Vashem had then no separate list of Jewish prisoners of Ravensbrück. A cur- sory search produced a short list of women who had mentioned the name of this camp in their testimonies or in interviews about their Holocaust experiences. Many of the addresses and phone numbers of the women on that list were no longer valid. (Later on, Yad Vashem was very helpful to our research teams. Many more names of Ravensbrück survivors were located in its archives. Previously unex- amined microﬁlms of arrival lists of prisoners to Ravensbrück soon proved most signiﬁcant for the beginning of my study. Much later we found many more Ravensbrück documents in its archives.) As I had taken upon myself the task of organizing the travel of Israeli Ravensbrück survivors to the commemoration event, I approached a young woman journalist writing for the daily Yediot with a request to interview me about this issue. I offered my phone number to all who were interested. As a result, the phone did not stop ringing for the next two weeks. More than 200 women declared themselves willing to travel to Ravensbrück, and about a hundred additional ones also told about their being Ravensbrück survivors, but were unable to travel – usually because of their own ill health or that of a family member. The upshot was that the German government had to rent a special plane from EL-AL so the survivors could reach Berlin in time. In Germany, the arriving survivors were received well and a group of young students who had all previously visited Israel were very help- ful guides. Yet, in Ravensbrück itself, it took a special effort to enable them to appear as Israelis and for a representative to deliver their spe- cial message to the thousands of other survivors arriving from all over the world. Many of the Israeli survivors had not spoken before about their Holocaust experiences, even to their own children, and many had set out to visit Germany with great trepidation. Surprisingly, all experienced the visit to the place of their immense suffering as posi- tive, and the opening of the ﬂoodgates of their memories as liberating. ch1.080 09/12/2006 12:52 PM Page 5 The Origin of the Project 5 On returning to Israel, I realized that by this informal process, a considerable amount of evidence through oral history had come my way. Colleagues persuaded me then to use this unique opportu- nity for systematic research and to apply for funding to the GIF (German Israel Foundation for Research and Development). I approached with this suggestion a sociologist, Professor Hanna Herzog, and historians Professor Dina Porat and Dr. Irith Dublon- Knebel, all of Tel Aviv University, and they accepted the idea and agreed to cooperate. The regulations of the GIF demand the cooper- ation of teams of Israeli and German researchers. Eventually, a group of women sociologists and historians of Tel Aviv University and of Free University Berlin, also including Professor Dr. Sigrid Jacobeit, the director of the Ravensbrück Memorial (Mahn- und Gedenkstätte), started out on a three-year research project, which was later extended. We ﬁrst sent out a questionnaire to survivors living in Israel that hundreds answered. For many more who had lived in Israel but had died, relatives ﬁlled in the data to the best of their knowledge. We also used the data eventually found in 200 Yad Vashem survivor testi- monies. All this resulted in a database for over 700 survivors of Ravensbrück who had ever reached Israel. Using the data ﬁrst gained in 1995, we organized a moving meeting of Israeli Ravensbrück survivors at Tel Aviv University. Though both teams participated in this initial effort, soon our ways parted as each showed interest in different aspects of the story. It became increasingly clear to me that, in addition to my contribution to the collective volume of both teams, A Neglected Chapter in the History of the Holocaust: The Jewish Women Prisoners of Ravensbrück, which Dr. Irith Dublon-Knebel has edited and which is due to appear soon, my task was to concentrate on a thorough study – both histori- cal and sociological – in an attempt to answer as best I can the ques- tion, The Jewish prisoners of Ravensbrück: who were they? I wanted to illustrate my view that social studies do not preclude the individual human aspect of the story. Meanwhile, two welcome publications appeared on the same topic but from different viewpoints. One is by a member of our German team, Dr. Linde Apel, Jüdische Frauen im Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück 1939–1945, Metropol, Berlin, 2003; the other is by Rochelle G. Saidel, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, Wisconsin University Press, Madison, WI, 2004, who pursued this topic independently. (The terms of our contract with GIF ch1.080 09/12/2006 12:52 PM Page 6 6 The Jewish Prisoners of Ravensbrück regrettably prevented us from including her in our team.) Let me add one brief paragraph on these books. Neither book aims at as complete an answer as possible to the ques- tion of my choice, The Jewish prisoners of Ravensbrück: who were they? And neither book pays as much attention to the differences in the Jewish prisoner populations and their different situations in different periods as this study does. Apel made a valiant effort to be objective. She describes and analyzes the speciﬁc conditions of work, life, and death of the Jewish women prisoners on the basis of a wealth of docu- ments, records, and testimonies of Jewish and non-Jewish survivors. Her effort at objectivity towards the Jewish prisoners may be the reason for her not having touched upon moral issues, attitudes, and senti- ments.By contrast,Saidel is very sensitive to the attitudes and sentiments of the interviewed survivors, including also the problems that the survivors experienced after the War. She includes in her book many pages of interview texts, and it is indeed the fruit of a labor of love. Returning to the question of my choice, ‘The Jewish prisoners of Ravensbrück: who were they?’, in the following chapters I present the fruits of my efforts to answer this question. I also enclose on a CD-ROM a list of well over 16,000 names of Jewish prisoners of Ravensbrück, with much detailed information about them. In addition, I have also attempted to include in this volume an analysis of the social relations of the Jewish women prisoners and of the speciﬁc social ties among them. What I did not do is study the problems related to the physical and psychological damage to sur- vivors of the Holocaust and the degree of success of efforts to over- come them and integrate in the societies, most of whose populations were spared this horrendous experience. I also did not deal with the difﬁcult question of whether it was advisable or inadvisable for sur- vivors to share their horrid experiences with their closest relatives. How heavy was the post-Holocaust traumatic burden and was its transmission to the next generation inevitable? On these questions, there is a wealth of literature that I was not sufﬁciently qualiﬁed to examine on the basis of the data available to me. As a sociologist, I always found very relevant the differences in conditions between the USA, Israel, and other countries. I also found relevant the differences in the degree of education and the social status of the survivors, as well as their ability to integrate in their societies of settlement. I did not have sufﬁcient data to examine these. I used the expression of Halina Nelken as a motto for this study: “Once again,” she says,“we are being ch1.080 09/12/2006 12:52 PM Page 7 The Origin of the Project 7 turned into nameless, faceless, dehumanized theories and statistics. I wish I could protect the memory of us all, young and old: not one of us thought of ourselves as hero or victim – and yet we were both.” I sincerely hope that this study, dealing with theories and statistics as it does, nevertheless does justice to the memory of the victims: I honor as many names as I could ﬁnd, describing them and their diverse per- sonalities and fate, and above all, their having been both victims and heroines. Herzlia J. B. A. January 2006 NOTES 1. Irith Dublon-Knebel (ed.), A Neglected Chapter in the History of the Holocaust: The Jewish Women Prisoners of Ravensbrück, forthcoming. 2. Margarete Buber-Neumann, Under two Dictators, New York, 1950, pp. 162–166 (ﬁrst published in German as Als Gefangene bei Stalin und Hitler, Munich, 1949); Hans Schafranek, Zwischen NKWD und Gestapo: Die Auslieferung deutscher und österreichischer Antifaschisten aus der Sowjetunion nach Nazideutschland 1937–1941, Frankfurt am Main, 1990, pp. 110f. 3. Margarete Buber-Neumann, Milena, London, 1989 (ﬁrst published in German in 1963). 4. Later we found that lists of Ravensbrück survivors existed in several countries; although the overwhelming majority of these women had been arrested and deported to Ravensbrück either directly or via Auschwitz as Jews, they usually were listed as “anti-fascists”, without mention of their being Jewish. In the US about 1200 Jewish women (and some men) who had registered with the Washington Holocaust Registry had mentioned Ravensbrück as one of their camps. NB. Dates of documents are recorded here as in the originals: day, month, year.
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