“We are looking for healthy workers between the ages of 20 and 40 to work in a military facility,” reads a job advertisement from a German newspaper from 1944.
Good salary, free food, accommodation and clothes are promised.
The only thing that is not mentioned is that the clothes are SS uniforms.
And that “military facility” is the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women.
Today, there are no more shaky wooden barracks for prisoners.
All that is left is a ghostly empty rocky field, about eighty kilometers north of Berlin.
But there are still eight stably built attractive villas with wooden curtains and balconies.
They are a Nazi version of medieval German huts.
Guardians lived there, some with their children. From the balcony they could see the forest and the beautiful lake.
“It was the most beautiful period in my life,” said a former guard decades later.
But from their bedrooms, they could also see the prisoners chained to each other and the chimneys of the gas chamber.
“Many visitors who come to the memorial center inquire about these women.
“They don’t ask too much about the men who worked in this field,” says Andrea Genest, director of the Ravensbirk Memorial Museum, as she shows me where the women lived.
“People don’t like to think about how women can be so cruel.”
Many young women came from poorer families, dropped out of school early, and had few job offers.
Working in a concentration camp meant a higher salary, comfortable accommodation and financial independence.
“It was more attractive than working in a factory,” says Dr. Genest.
Many were indoctrinated early on in Nazi youth groups and believed in Hitler’s ideology.
“They thought they were supporting society by doing something against their enemies,” she said.
Hell and the comfort of home
In one of the houses, photos of these women in their free time can be seen at the new exhibition.
Most of them were in their twenties, they were beautiful, with modern hairstyles.
The pictures show them smiling while drinking coffee and eating cookies at home.
Or they laugh, holding hands, as they go for a walk in the nearby forest with their dogs.
Those scenes seem innocent – until you notice the SS marks on the women’s clothes and remember that they are the same German shepherds used to torture people in concentration camps.
About 3,500 women worked as guards at Nazi concentration camps, all starting their careers in Ravensbrick.
Many later worked in death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkeanu or Bergen-Belsen.
“They were terrible people,” Selma Van De Pere, 98, from her home in London, told me over the phone.
She was a Dutch Jew and a member of the Resistance Movement who was detained in Ravensbrick as a political prisoner.
“They liked it probably because it gave them a sense of power. It gave them a lot of power over the prisoners.
“Some prisoners were treated very badly. Beaten up. “
Watch the video: A woman who survived the Holocaust and forgave the Nazis
Selma worked in secret in the occupied Netherlands and bravely helped Jewish families escape.
In September, she published a book about her experiences in the UK, My Name is Selma.
This year, it will be published in other countries, including Germany.
Selma’s parents and teenage sister were killed in the camps, and almost every year she returns to Ravensbrick to take part in events that make sure that the crimes committed here are never forgotten.
Ravensbrück was the largest camp for women only in Nazi Germany.
More than 120,000 women from all over Europe were held there.
Many were members of the Resistance Movement or political opponents.
Others were declared unfit for Nazi society: Jews, lesbians, sex workers, and the homeless.
At least 30,000 women died there.
Some were gassed or hanged, others starved to death, died of disease, or forced to work until death.
Many guards brutally treated them – beating them, torturing or killing them.
The prisoners gave them nicknames, “Bloody Brigida” or “Ana’s revolver”.
After the war, during the trial for Nazi war crimes in 1945, Irma Grese was called by the press “a beautiful beast”.
Young, handsome and blonde, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
The cliché of blonde, sadistic women in SS uniforms later became a sexualized cult figure in movies and comics.
But of the thousands who worked as SS guards, only 77 ended up in court.
And in fact very few of them have been convicted.
They presented themselves as uninformed helpers – which was easy to achieve in patriarchal post-war West Germany.
Most have never talked about their past.
They would get married, change their name and drown in company.
One woman, Herta Bote, sentenced to prison for horrific acts of violence, later spoke publicly about it.
She received a pardon from the British after only a few years spent in prison. In a rare interview, recorded in 1999, just before her death, she did not repent.
“Did I make a mistake?” The mistake was that it was a concentration camp, but I had to do it, otherwise I would have ended up in it myself. That was my fault. “
This is a common excuse used by former security guards.
But he is simply not true.
Records show that some new recruits left Ravensbrück as soon as they realized what the job meant. They were allowed to leave and did not experience any negative consequences.
I ask Selma if she thinks the guards were evil monsters.
“I think they were ordinary women who did monstrous things. I think it’s possible for a bunch of people, even in England.
“I think it can happen anywhere. It can happen even here if it is allowed. “
That is a scary lesson for today, she believes.
After the war, SS guards became fictional personalities in books and movies.
She is the most famous Reader, a German novel that later became a film starring Kate Winslet.
Sometimes these women present themselves as exploited victims.
On other occasions they are sadistic monsters.
The truth is scarier.
They were no special monsters, just ordinary women who ended up doing monstrous things.
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