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The shocking secrets of a female concentration camp.

After Auschwitz’s gas chambers were shut down during the final months of World War II, some of its parts reportedly ended up in Ravensbrück, Hitler’s concentration camp reserved for women only.

There, they built a relatively small gas chamber and proceeded to kill up to 6000 women.

“The camp became so overcrowded and the conditions so appalling, they decided to build a gas chamber to exterminate women, simply to make room,” researcher and author Sarah Helm told PM.

In addition to those murdered in the chamber, anywhere up to 50,000 died at the camp, and tens of thousands were sent east to death camps.

Female prisoners marked for transport at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Image via ABC.

Ms Helm, who wrote If This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbrück, Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women, said although the numbers were relative to the hundreds of thousands murdered at camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, the atrocities of Ravensbrück needed to be out there with the rest of it.

Crimes against women

The camp became a place the Nazis "tested their whole attempt to control childbirth" and where some of Heinrich Himmler's most notorious medical experiments would take place.

"They aborted any babies that were going to be born, and this happened in atrocious circumstances, often very, very brutally, very late-on during a pregnancy," Ms Helm said.

"They also experimented with sterilisation.

"Later on, when the numbers got so large, they simply couldn't control the process of childbirth."

Ms Helm added because the Nazis could not control it, they believed the only way to deal with it was to let the women have their babies.

They created a kinderzimmer, or a maternity block of sorts, and the women believed they would be allowed to give birth.

"[It] cheered the women enormously in the very, very early days," she said.


"But then they realised very quickly that there would be no food, and of course the mothers had no milk to feed the babies because they were so hungry and the babies died.

"And so it became another way of mass murder."

The women were "used as fodder", according to Ms Helm.

"Himmler himself was fascinated by kind of crank medical experiments, and he carried out the most notorious ones at Ravensbrück on a group of young Polish women whose legs were butchered in order to test a drug called sulphonamide, which might have been used, it was thought, to help cure battlefield wounds.

"And so to create the effect of battlefield wounds on these women's legs, they literally kind of chopped them up and cut into them.

"They were injected with gangrene and with tetanus, some of them died, and all of them suffered the most appalling pain."

For the prisoners, these experiments became more of a horror than death itself.

Was it part of the Holocaust?

The all-women concentration camp was among those whose 70th anniversary of liberation came this year.

But with its non-Jewish majority, historians have debated its place in the Holocaust.

"Things were never so clear cut as sometimes history makes out," Ms Helm said.

She argued saying it was not part of the Holocaust was untrue.


"There was always a number of Jews. There was probably an average of about 10 per cent [at Ravensbrück]," she said.

"All these camps later on became connected. The Jews from Ravensbrück were deported to the eastern death camps. Also, the guards and the SS guards moved back and forth between the camps."

Ravensbruck survivors commemorate the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation. Image via ABC.

There was, however, a crucial difference as "many of those that went into the death camps like Treblinka and Sobibor, who were almost all Jews, were killed virtually on arrival".


Ms Helm said a large number of the women were made to carry out slave labour before they were killed.

"That slave labour itself killed them, as did the conditions of starvation, so I slightly question the distinction that is sometimes made: 'This was not a death camp, therefore it wasn't a place of absolute horror and death'," she said.

"It was a place of absolute horror and death, it just evolved in a different way."

How did the women end up at the camp?

Before World War II had begun, concentration camps had already been established in Germany.

All-male camps confined those in political opposition to Hitler, and outcasts whom he did not see fit for German society; poor people, gypsies, homosexuals.

"But they didn't have a women's camp because they didn't really see women as a threat," Ms Helm said.

"Women were almost too insignificant to bother putting in a concentration camp."

But as the 1930s came to a close, the volume of women being arrested, mainly prostitutes and homeless women, had grown.

"They were rounding up so many they had to find a concentration camp for them too, hence they built Ravensbrück just for women," she said.

This post originally appeared on the ABC and was republished here with full permission.