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The Story of the Women of Ravensbruck

A book project about the Ravensbruck women's concentration camp led British journalist Sarah Helm to the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen for two days in mid-July. She was in search of information on camp life and the destiny of individual prisoners. “An interesting experience,” as the London-based writer said.

Russia, France, Great Britain, Israel and Germany – for two years Helm has been travelling around the world to puzzle together a picture of the Ravensbruck women's concentration camp. “The data and information exchange between memorials and archives is rather meager. I therefore have to visit a lot of different places for my book,” explained the journalist.

Helm wants to portray the history of the concentration camp on the basis of personal fates from the time the camp opened in 1939, to its liberation in late April 1945. Among the prisoners of Ravensbruck were Geneviève de Gaulle, a niece of the well-known French general, the German-Brazilian communist Olga Benario-Prestes, and Milena Jesenská, a close friend of Franz Kafka. 133,000 women, children and youngsters, as well as 20,000 men, were imprisoned here. The Ravensbruck deportees came from more than 40 different nations including Jews, Sinti and Roma. Tens of thousands were murdered, died of hunger, illness or as the result of medical experiments.

At ITS, Helm combed through material on the Ravensbruck concentration camp and individual documents of particular prisoners. “I was able to find some useful information,” said the British journalist. “Not always the names I had hoped for, but then other names and hints turned up instead.” Missing catalogues and finding aids posed an obstacle to her research. “However,” says Helm, “the staff is exceedingly helpful and patient.” As a journalist, she also found it interesting that some documents did not find their way to the Tracing Service after the war. After two years of research, the 51-year-old Briton concludes that “some information was presumably meant to remain confidential, while other information seems to be lost forever.”

Helm’s visit to Arolsen was supported by Baerbel Schindler-Saefkow, head of research for a commemorative book on Ravensbruck. The German historian assisted her with the translation and comprehension of the documents. “It takes some previous knowledge to tap into the documents at ITS,” explained Schindler-Saefkow. “But now that I’m here for the fourth time, I can only say that ITS is as good as gold for researchers.”

Helm has worked for over 20 years as a journalist and was a correspondent in Europe and the Middle East for the British Independent. Her interest in the history of World War II evolved after an encounter with Vera Atkins. At the end of the war, Atkins had uncovered the destinies of British spies the Nazis had gotten hold of. “A fascinating woman,” says Helm. She captured her life story in the novel A life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, which to date has only been published in English. The publication of her new work on Ravensbruck is set for 2010, right in time for the 65th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.