June 1, 2018

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The Bunker of Ravensbrück

On July 26, 1944, after four suffocating days in an unventilated attic with forty Ukrainian women, Odette and the others were loaded onto a train bound for the one place feared by every woman in Europe.

 

     Ravensbrück.   

 

     Created by Heinrich Himmler himself, the notorious labor camp for women had been opened in May 1939 to house up to 4,000 political prisoners.  Now it housed over 36,000, and included criminals, prostitutes, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Resistance agents.  By the end of the war, some 133,000 women would pass through its gates, as many as 40,000 of whom would perish. 

 

 

     Odette's train arrived at the Fürstenberg station the following day, July 27, and a group of SS guards—men and women—supervised the disembarking.  The charming village on the banks of the Schwedtsee could not have been more different from the Ravensbrück community across the lake.  Because the Havel River connected the Mecklenburg chain of lakes to the Schwedt, Fürstenberg was a popular boating destination and had become something of a resort area.  Quaint cottages dotted the lengthy waterfront and quality homes built for camp employees attracted many SS officers and their families. 

 

      When the guards were ready, Odette and the Ukrainians left for the two-mile trek to the camp.  It was impossible not to notice the town's many flowers, including white gardenias, which adorned Fürstenberg windowsills.  Such was the visual delight that one prisoner later remarked, "Is there really a prettier village on earth?" 

 

     After they had marched a few minutes the lake appeared on the right, SS homes on the left, and then they could see it; Ravensbrück's fourteen foot walls and gargoyle-like towers beckoned the damned and almost dead. 

 

     They continued alongside the tranquil Schwedtsee and were led through the massive iron gates and into the roll-call area.  The misery had been carefully planned, it seemed; the grounds were set into a man-made valley and there were no trees, no bushes, and no grass.  The ground was cinder and, like the crop wielding guards, hard and cold.

 

 

     All around Odette could see skull-and-crossbones warning that the triple barbed wires atop the concrete walls were electrified.  In front of her was a sea of bullet-gray barracks—acres of them, perfectly aligned, perfectly dreary.  To one side was what appeared to be a large canteen for the guards; to the other, an administrative office, another building, and the crematorium.  More barbed wire, also electrified, separated the prisoner area from the canteen.  

 

     From what Odette could tell, it appeared that the camp was unprepared for their arrival and so the guards herded them down the main street to the washroom.  The women showered and drank from the spigots and were told that they would be spending the night there—on the concrete floor.  Odette was so tired it didn't matter; she was asleep in seconds.   

 

     Ravensbrück prisoner intake normally occurred in several stages.  First, newcomers were taken to a desk to give up their personal belongings—jewelry, books, diaries, and purses—and then herded to another to give up their clothes.  Stark naked, they would walk past a dozen leering SS men to the showers.  After the icy cleansing prisoners were inspected for lice—which infested the camp—and if any were found the woman's head and pubic area were shaved.  Traumatized by the experience, many cried; others committed suicide by throwing themselves on the electrified wire.

 

      Still naked, the women then stood in line—often for hours—to receive a medical exam.  The examination each group received, however, varied greatly.  For some, a doctor simply inspected their throat and a dentist peered at their teeth; others received a gynecologic exam, the same instrument being used on every woman without disinfection.  

 

     Prisoners were then given a thin dress and directed back to the SS men, who would roam their hands over every woman—front, back, and sides—in case she had pilfered a Luger or Schmeisser from a shower head or the doctor's office.

 

      Finally, inmates would receive a barrack assignment but before exiting the building, female guards would search them again. 

 

     Perhaps because Odette was considered "on death row" and would not be mingling with others, she was spared the processing indignity.  Around ten the next morning a Gestapo agent came to the washroom and called for her.  He would be escorting her, he said, to see the commandant of the camp, Sturmbannführer (Major) Fritz Sühren.

 

     Sühren was a prototype Nazi—Aryan as they came, fervent as ideologically possible.  He had joined the Nazi party in the early days, 1928, and volunteered for the SS three years later.  While he was trained as a soldier, he was ushered into administration and in 1941 joined the staff at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The following year he was named deputy commandant, and in the summer of 1942 became commandant of Ravensbrück.  Almost immediately, his operating policy became evident: exterminate prisoners by hard labor and starvation. 

 

 

     This was the man who would be responsible for Odette's welfare.         

 

      He was strikingly young, Odette noticed—mid-thirties—with a baby face, fair hair, and blank blue eyes, almost without pigment.  His lily-white skin shone bright against the green and silver SS Penal Section uniform, his elegant hands dangling like those of a mannequin. 

 

       "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"

 

     "Non, Monsieur."

 

      Sühren frowned.  "You are relation to Mr. Winston Churchill?"

 

     "My husband is a distant connection of his."

 

     In the camp she would be known as Frau Schurer, he said.

 

      It was logical; the Churchill name would have been a distraction—half the guards wanting to know details about the British Bulldog, half wanting to beat Odette with vicarious blows. 

 

       He also told her that she would be put in the Bunker, the prison of the camp.

 

      "Very well.  As you wish."

 

     Odette's mild response reflected ignorance about her new home; the Bunker was Ravensbrück's most severe punishment, reserved only for the most incorrigible prisoners.  It was actually a building located near the camp entrance and was comprised of  78 cells—39 on each of two floors.  Each cell was about the size of a closet—4.5 paces long by 2.5 paces wide—and contained a plank bed, folding table, stool, and toilet. 

 

     To send an inmate to the Bunker, a guard was required to submit a written report to the Camp Leader for Protective Custody, and any sentence longer than three days required the commandant's approval.  During winter, cells generally were unheated though they had heating panels.  Bunker inmates often went days without food, and most were beaten.  One prisoner, a twenty year-old pregnant woman, was found dead in her cell, frozen to the floor.  She had been beaten. 

 

     As one condemned to death, Odette would receive special attention.

 

     Sühren spoke to the Gestapo agent, saying that Frau Schurer was to receive the normal ration of the punishment cells, no exercise, no books, and no bath.

 

     The agent escorted her across the compound to the Bunker and turned her over to Margarete Mewes,  a beady-eyed guard with a beak nose engulfed by thick, black tussled hair—a bird chirping from her nest. 

 

     Odette drank in one last swallow of the peaceful blue sky and followed Mewes into the compound and along a short passage.  They came to a security gate for the inner Bunker, which Mewes unlocked, and went down a flight of stairs.  Vestiges of daylight vanished, the corridor now illuminated by overhead lamps.  Mewes unlocked a cell and Odette went in, the door slamming behind her.

 

     It was pitch dark.  Odette stretched out her hands—which she could not see—and gradually probed the confines of her compartment.  She would live in utter darkness, unable to distinguish night from day. 

 

     Just as she had during her childhood blindness.

 

       She closed her eyes.

 

 

Excerpted from the upcoming book by Larry Loftis, CODE NAME: LISE—The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy (Gallery/Simon & Schuster).

 

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