THE CHILDREN IN RAVENSBRÜCK
A small glass case in the present-day Ravensbrück museum contains a small book. It is the camp’s birth register. One of the barracks in the camp was a so-called mother-and-child barrack, to which pregnant women were sent a few weeks prior to their confinement. It was the responsibility of Blockälteste (senior block prisoner) to keep track of the prisoners in her barrack. In order to record the children who were born here, she had used a small note book, in which she wrote the prisoner’s, i.e. the mother’s family name, her first name, date of birth, nationality and prison number. When the child was born, its name, date and time of birth and its sex were entered in the same space as the mother’s. If the child died during its stay in the barrack, a cross would be added in the same space, as well as the date of death.
This birth register included only the children who were born in the mother-and-child barrack. In addition several other children were born in the camp, which are not registered in this register. Neither are the children, who arrived in the camp together with their mothers.
The first of many children arrived in Ravensbrück as early as in 1939, Gypsy children who came to the camp from Burgenland, Austria, together with their mothers. From Holland, France and Hungary also many Jewish children, girls, came to Ravensbrück with their mothers. Only very few of these children lived to see the end of the war. The majority ended their days in the gas chambers together with their mothers.
The children, who were born in Ravensbrück, were all conceived before the mothers were arrested. The attitude of the camp leadership had been quite consistent during the first few years. The fetus was aborted as soon as the pregnancy was discovered. Later the SS changed their policy. The mothers were allowed to carry their babies to term, but the SS disclaimed any responsibility for the child’s future. How many children were born in Ravensbrück is still disputed today. But apparently it has been agreed that there were between eight and nine hundred births.
In most cases the newborn child became a tragedy. Regardless how much the mothers fought to keep them, most of the children died. The main reason for this phenomenon was that the mother had to report for work only a few days after her confinement, often already the day after. It was not allowed to bring the child to the workplace. And the camp had no provisions for taking care of the children, whose mothers had to go to work. No matter how supportive the mother’s prison friends were, trying to look after the child while the mother worked, the prospects of the child’s growing up were very slim. There was no baby food available. There was no milk. As a rule the mother was too weakened to have any milk herself. There were no baby clothes, no diapers, nothing for keeping mother and child clean. Nevertheless, every mother fought like a lioness to keep her child alive.
The children’s life span varied. Some would live a few days, others a few weeks or months, a few several years. As mentioned, the mother was not allowed to bring the child to work, but she had to bring it whenever she reported for a roll call.
No matter how inhumane life in Ravensbrück might have appeared to the little ones, there were always some children around. Some of them always pulled through. They looked for each other; they found tiny places where they could play. Their games often reflected the world that surrounded them. In her book “Prisoner in Ravensbrück” Lise Børsum has given an unequalled account of this phenomenon:
“The children quickly got to know the pulse of the camp. We could see bigger and smaller children play roll call and selection for the gas chamber and transport. They stood in a row and one of them reprimanded the others and shouted at them and called ‘Achtung! (‘Attention’). The children usually stayed behind the big laundry. The child who gave the orders pulled one of his playmates after another out of the row, and ordered them to get into the ‘gas oven’. The ‘gas oven’ was an old centrifuge that had been discarded by the laundry and was standing outside against the wall. Its diameter was large and it was studded with many holes and covered by a lid. The children played so intensely that the eyes of those who were pushed into the centrifuge and had the lid slammed shut over them, were filled with fear.”
And she writes further:
“There were many little boys in the camp. They were thin and frozen with red little noses. It was strange to see how they played and enjoyed themselves just the same. They took stools from the barracks, turned them upside-down, and used them as toboggans, sliding down a small slope while they screamed, ‘Get out of the way.’ But the fingers that clutched the legs of the stools were frozen and bare.”
Whether it was because the SS too had the feeling that the war was coming to an end, or that not even the toughest Nazi could help being affected by the fact that there were children in the camp, when Christmas Eve 1944 approached, the SS agreed that a Christmas party for the children be arranged.
At the time there were about 400 older and younger children in the camp. After the war Ilse Unger, a well-known German political prisoner, has described the children’s Christmas party in Ravensbrück, as follows:
“In every block women sat and sewed, knitted, embroidered, darned and made the loveliest toys from the smallest remnants. Innumerable gifts accumulated. The women created veritable works of art, toys, dolls, sweaters, clothes and suits. Tenderly we clutched toy after toy in our hands and dried our tears as they fell.
Christmas Eve arrived. The puppet show began. The flashlights that were used as stage lights illuminated the dolls’ faces with a fairytale-like glow. As for us, we sat and watched the children’s faces. The children were completely absorbed by the play forgetting, for a little while, the sad fate they had met with. And when they began laughing and eagerly crowded together around the stage, a quiet joy surfaced in all of us. Something dissolved within us, and the desire to right again the wrong that was done to the unfortunate tiny human beings in this camp, rose in all of us.”
That was Christmas Eve. The following morning the camp woke up to its hard and brutal reality as usual. But in many of the little children’s minds the memory of the marvelous evening they had enjoyed lived on. Hardly one of them had definite memories of life outside the camp. The children’s every day lives in Ravensbrück did not allow for major celebrations. Therefore, Christmas Eve 1944 remained a fairy tale, but for many it was their last. Before the clock of freedom struck for the prisoners in the camp, most of the 400 children were gone.
There are many tales of tragedies about the children in Ravensbrück. One of them is told by Charlotte Müller, Ravensbrück prisoner No. 10,787. Käte Rentmeister, one of the older prisoners in the camp, a Communist and the mother of five children, had told her a story that shook her deeply. At the time when the event occurred, Käte had been assigned to wake up those prisoners in the middle of the night, who had to report for transport prior to the morning roll call the following day. The evening before the Schreibstube (office) had given Käte Rentmeister a list of the prisoners in question. She also had to make sure that they would report “nach vorne” (up to the camp leadership) well in advance of the departure of the transport.
On her nightly rounds she would, time permitting, drop by the camp’s central heating installation, i.e. the furnace room that provided heat first and foremost to the bath and to the house of the commandant. There she would have a chat with the forewoman, a prisoner with a black triangle and at the same time she could warm up a little. In winter it would often be bitterly cold in the camp, and it was especially in the early winter mornings that she would drop by the furnace room.
Suddenly one morning when she was there, the door opened. Käte, who was standing where the newcomer could not see her, almost did not believe her own eyes. SS Oberschwester (head nurse) Marschall enters the room, a newborn naked child in her arms. As on a signal the forewoman opens the oven door, and without hesitating for a moment Marschall throws the newborn infant into the red-hot oven. Without a word she leaves the furnace room. Käte approaches the stoker but is unable to utter one word. After a few minutes’ silence the stoker says, nodding with her head towards the door through which Marschall has just left: “Why do you look at me like this? This is not a rare occurrence.”
One day, when Norwegian-born Rakel Bøckenhauer was in the bathroom (prisoners had to line up to use its primitive washing facilities) preparing to receive a transport that was expected in the evening, she was suddenly aware of a little boy running up and down the stairs near one of the exits to the bathroom. The boy was probably around five years old. Intuitively she understood that he could not possibly realize that he was in a forbidden zone and that he could be shot at any time, were an SS man to discover him. Quickly she ran outside to the stairs, grabbed the boy and pulled him into the bathroom. The child was poorly dressed and on his feet he had only some worn rags. He shivered from cold. His teeth positively chattered and he managed to say only a few unintelligible words. Finally she did understand something. “Auntie, auntie,” said the boy, “I am so cold, I am so cold.” Resolutely Rakel took him with her into the bathroom, filled one of the tubs with warm water, took off all his rags and put him into the tub. She gave him a good wash and when she was finished she asked him: “Are you warm now?” The little boy looked at Rakel with large, terror-filled eyes and nodded eagerly. “Stay here,” she told him and went into the adjoining room, where she had hidden some children’s clothes as well as an entirely new pair of children’s shoes. She returned to the boy. His eyes beamed with happiness when he caught sight of the shoes, but then something seemed to die in his look and he said: “But I have no bread in return.” “These shoes are a gift from me”, said Rakel, “and you can keep all the bread for yourself.” The child looked at her. “But you are just as nice as my Mommy. This morning she left through the gate and has not come back yet. And now I have waited and waited for her all day. It was to stay warm that I began to run up and down the stairs.”
Now Rakel understood everything. The mother had been sent on transport and nobody had told the boy the truth. So she consoled him and said: “Your mother will definitely come back. Believe me, she has not forgotten you at all.” The boy nodded.
But now Rakel had a problem. How would she be able get the boy out from the bathroom and how could she prevent the SS from finding out that he had gotten the new shoes from her? If this became known she would be in serious trouble. And what’s more, she was a key person in the camp. She was deeply involved in the illegal resistance work that, among others things, was aimed at keeping up the morale among the prisoners, and she could not run the risk of ending up on the SS blacklist.
Fortunately there were two women in the bathroom. Through her coworker Rakel quickly got in touch with a reliable Blockälteste and alerted her about the little boy. When it was confirmed that the contact had been established, she said to the little one, “Now you must run back to barrack number such and such, where a camp Mommy is waiting for you. But remember, someone else gave you the shoes. You got them from your mother before she left the camp. Remember that you got them from your mother before she went out the gate.” The boy looked at her with his large eyes, nodded and said: “I got the shoes from my mother before she went out the gate.” When Rakel was convinced that the boy knew what to tell the SS if he was caught on his way to the barrack, she said to him: “Now I open the door. Run as fast as you can to your new camp Mommy.” Then she opened the door. Anxiously she followed the child’s movements through the window. The last thing she saw was that he swung around the corner of the barrack. In that moment he turned around, waved and continued running.
A child had been saved – but for how long?
In July 1944 there was a heat wave in North-Germany. In the middle of the stifling heat a new transport of many hundreds, perhaps almost one thousand Hungarian Jews arrived in Ravensbrück. They were not let into the bathroom, either on the first or on the second day. The newcomers had to alternately stand and sit on the roll call square and were not given anything to eat or drink. They suffered terribly from thirst. Just then a prisoner came along, who worked in the Kistenkommando (box unit), where also many Norwegians worked. He carried a bucket of water from the kitchen. The Kistenkommando was a hard Kommando (work unit). The work consisted of lifting down huge wooden boxes from railway cars and trucks and moving them to different camp barracks. It had been decided some time ago that the prisoners could go to the kitchen at certain intervals to get water, either for drinking purposes or to get washed with.
The transport from Hungary had now been sitting on the roll call square for two days. When they saw the prisoner with the water bucket they became desperate. They tried to get some sips from the bucket, and in the disturbance that erupted, the bucket overturned and the water ran out. Those who stood closest threw themselves down and tried to suck drops of water from the ground. The prisoner with the water bucket became annoyed: “Ihr seid Tiere” (you are animals), she shouted. “Jawohl”, answered one of the Jewish women, “wir sind lange unterwegs, und die SS hat uns zu Tieren gemacht. Sieh bloss dort drüben!” (“Yes, we have been traveling for a long time and the SS have caused us to become animals. Just look over there”), and she pointed to a gathering of women. And there in the middle of the roll call square a young Jewish woman had just given birth to a child, a little boy. Some of the women, who sat around her, had torn up their slips and tried to clean the baby. They had just put the child to its mother’s breast. The prisoner with the bucket stood as though paralyzed looking at the scene before her. She had often thought of the Infant Jesus in the manger. Dear God, compared to this little Jewish boy on the roll call square in Ravensbrück, the Christ child had been born in luxurious surroundings. How many days would this little boy live?
When it came to deciding what to do with an individual child, the question of race was of course relevant. The SS was merciless with Jewish or Gypsy children. Either they went on transport with their mothers to Auschwitz or Lublin – as long as these camps existed - or they ended up in the gas chamber in Ravensbrück. Generally there were no exceptions.
When it came to pregnant women or mothers who had come to the camp because of Rassenschande (race defilement) – i.e. young German women who had had relationships with foreign prisoners of war or with foreign guest workers and who had become pregnant as a result – the attitude of the SS was somewhat more obscure. In these cases it was as a rule Dr. Rosenthal who made the decisions. If the father was from one of the eastern European countries such as Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia, etc. he was merciless, and the woman was forced to have an abortion without any exceptions. However, if the father hailed from one of the western countries, it happened that the mother was allowed to carry the baby to term, especially during the last two years of the war.
SS Oberschwester (head nurse) Marschall was Dr. Rosenthal’s able assistant in this project. On the occasion of Easter Sunday 1944, the two of them sent more than 250 women on a transport to Bergen-Belsen. Some of the women were in their last months of pregnancy; others were mothers with infants they had just given birth to. They rode in ordinary cattle cars without facilities of any kind.
All of them perished in Bergen-Belsen.
However, there were also happy stories about the children, perhaps not many but there were some. Best known is perhaps the story about the 13 children and the Rotarmisten (Red Army prisoners).
When a woman died in the camp and left a child behind, which happened often, everything was done to provide a so called substitute mother,eine Lagermutter (a camp mother) for the child. In the fall of 1944 there were suddenly 13 orphans in the camp, spread over different barracks. At the time several of the SS Aufseherinnen (supervisors) were friendlier disposed towards the prisoners than before, particularly theFledermaus (bat, nickname) who dealt with the Rotarmisten.
One day Lagerälteste approached the bat and said: “Listen, we have a problem. We have thirteen children between 3 and 5 years old. We have spoken to the Rotarmisten. They are willing to take care of the children. Is that all right?” To Lagerälteste’s surprise the bat nodded. “Aber natürlich,” she replied, “Auf eigene Verantwortung” (“Of course, at their own risk”). “Selbstverständlich” (“of course”), answered Lagerältesteand left as fast as she could before the bat had time to change her mind.
The children were lovingly received by the Rotarmisten. Many of them had their own children. Many of them had lost theirs, and many had not heard from their children after they had been imprisoned. As previously mentioned, there were many doctors and nurses among the female Soviet prisoners of war. Moreover, there were several teachers among them, two of whom now assumed the responsibility for the children’s education. The first thing the children learnt was the meaning of the word Achtung (attention). The moment Achtung was heard, the 13 children stood ramrod straight and stayed in this position until the bat left the barrack. If she spoke to them, they answered politely. If she did not say anything, they remained standing. The Rotarmisten were not given any extra rations, despite the fact that there were now also 13 children in the barrack. But that was a minor problem.
Many other women arranged to help the Rotarmisten with food for the children. Some arrived with clothes and some with toys, depending on what they managed to forage. The children’s education was quite professional. They learnt children’s songs and of course they were also taught to sing the Internationale (Socialist hymn).
In April 1945 when the Red Army was close to the camp, evacuation began. The first group to leave was the Rotarmisten along with the children. At nightfall, like all the others in their group, they had to improvise a place to spend the night in the woods. The children slept on branches of fir-trees and were covered with blankets that had been brought along. Some of the camp mothers tried to have a nap while the others stood guard.
Already the first night the SS soldiers, who were supposed to watch the column of prisoners, began to take off. The women noticed this, and some of the Rotarmisten tried to distract the other guards as best they could, partly by asking them questions that were difficult to answer, and partly by initiating conversations under the strangest pretexts. Protected by the darkness and covered by the others, the 13 camp mothers and the 13 children managed to sneak away without being discovered by the SS or shot at. The situation was already becoming so chaotic that no one noticed that this group had been reduced by 26 people during the night.
The escape succeeded. After hiding in the woods for two days the fugitives managed to contact the soldiers of the Red Army. Soon they were all safe.
There is still another happy story. In August 1944, immediately before the allied forces under the leadership of General de Gaulle and his free French troops advanced in to Paris, Raymonde Poirot was arrested by the Gestapo. She had worked in the French resistance movement for several years, mostly as a courier. Now she had been in Paris and was on her way to her base somewhat east of the city. Suddenly the Gestapo was all over her. She was in her second month of pregnancy. As soon as she could, she told her interrogator about her condition, hoping that he would show some sympathy for her. The French woman Raymonde understood just as little of what was in store for her, as had the Norwegian woman Henriette in Kristiansand. She was deported to Germany in a cattle car and arrived in Ravensbrück in October, where she met other French female prisoners. She explained her situation to them. However, not only the French women but also the Czech, Russian, Polish and German prisoners tried to help her as best they could. Raymonde was strong and healthy. Her pregnancy progressed without complications. Soon she felt the baby’s first movements. She steeled herself and resolved that somehow she would bring the child home to France. Now it was only a question of how long the war would last.
But the war lasted much too long. Raymonde worked in the laundry and on Sunday, March 11, 1945 in the afternoon she gave birth to her child in the corner of the room. Fortunately there were no SS nearby and just as fortunately the laundry Kommando was exempt from reporting at roll calls. Raymonde’s fellow prisoners put a towel into her mouth, so that no one should hear her scream. The birth was without complications. Two of her prison friends helped her. They had prepared themselves as best they could and had gotten hold of some washed-out towels with which to wrap the infant. Soon Raymonde was able to sit in the corner of the laundry and hold her baby in her arms.
“Mon petit chiffon” (“my little rag bundle”), she whispered. She called him Guy and baptized him with her tears, “Mon petit chiffon.” A German and a Czech prisoner were with her just then. The Czech woman understood a few words of French. She looked at her German prison friend. “Lumpi” (rag bundle), she smiled, and that would be Guy Poirot’s name. Soon they were able to smuggle Guy and his mother to the Mutter-und-Kind (mother and child) barrack, where they were somewhat protected, also from the SS. All those who were able to, helped. Somehow, one day at a time, they managed to provide nourishment for Guy. But what may really have saved the situation was perhaps the fact that they got hold of extra food for Raymonde. She managed to nurse the baby but did not have enough milk. Some of the women got hold of a bit of dry milk, others cooked some soup that they strained. Most of the children in the barrack died, but Guy pulled through. He was born on a Sunday, and soon he was also called Sunday’s child.
In his negotiations with Himmler during the last phase of the war Folke Bernadotte had received permission to bring not only the Scandinavian women but also several thousand women of other nationalities out of Ravensbrück. They would be picked up by the Swedish Red Cross and brought to safety in Sweden. A huge machinery was set in motion to have Raymonde included on the list. Everyone seemed to concentrate on this goal. Raymonde would be able to take Guy home to France. But she could not possibly appear with the child, it had to be accomplished in a different way.
The women gathered and worked out a strategy how to save Guy. The moment the boy’s mother had passed the guard on her way to the waiting bus and so to speak stood with one foot on its step, another French woman came running: “Raymonde, you have forgotten your rag bundle.” Then she threw the bundle as hard as she could across the SS guard’s head, across the gaping soldiers and across the other prisoners. Raymonde was ready. She caught the rag bundle in the air and ran into the bus. Gently she opened one end of the bundle, and her little son’s head became visible. Her friends in the bus covered her. Quickly she began nursing the baby, so that the Gestapo man in the bus would not hear him if he began to cry. All the women on the bus were quickly informed of the situation and formed a wall around Guy’s mother.
Once the bus began to move, the situation eased but the tension persisted until they had arrived onboard the ship that would bring them to Sweden.
Guy is still alive today, and Lumpi is still his nickname.