“We arrived at the Ravensbrück concentration camp in October 1944, were led to a steam bath, and our hair was cut off. We got numbers and a yellow star — for Jewish. My number was 72316,” one liberated woman prisoner testified.
“Conditions were dreadful — four sleeping in the same bed. We got no soap rations and we tried to ‘manage’ it somehow. When the aufseher [guard] found [that we had] soap or a comb, she beat us viciously.”
The testimony of the unnamed 19-year-old woman is found among some 500 interviews of female Polish-Jewish ex-prisoners, conducted within a few months after their liberation and jotted down in handwritten notes.
Many of the interviews are unedited and untranslated and are stored at Sweden’s Lund University, which plans to transform them into a professional and widely accessible archive.
E. Randol Schoenberg, president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, described the testimonies as “a lost treasure. Their translation and preservation offers an opportunity to reclaim an important slice of history.”
Sven Stromqvist, deputy vice chancellor for research at Lund University, was recently in Los Angeles to meet with local alumni and supporters of the university and to raise funds for the archive.
The young woman’s recollections continued: “I cared mainly to get more clothes; it was cold and I had no underwear. I bought underwear and stockings, paying with bread. Through a fortnight, I ate no bread, exchanging all I got for clothing.”
A week before liberation, all Polish Jews were placed in a strafblok [penalty bloc]. “No food was available. No access to toilets. We were viciously beaten at the lineups. We suspected they will send us to the crematorium, despite the rumors of liberation.”
Ravensbrück, 60 miles north of Berlin, was set up in 1939 by SS chief Heinrich Himmler, specifically to hold women and children.
During World War II, some 132,000 women and children from 23 countries were imprisoned in the camp, of whom 92,000 perished. Prisoners included “political unreliables,” Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romas (Gypsies), prostitutes, lesbians, criminals and Jews.
The latter, who got the worst treatment, made up about 20 percent of the inmates, according to Rochelle G. Saidel, author of “The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.”
(As a footnote, one of the prisoners was Gemma La Guardia Gluck, the sister of then-New York Mayor Fiorella La Guardia, whose mother was Jewish.)
The camp was liberated by Russian troops on April 30, 1945. In a rare gesture for any country at the time, the Swedish government quickly dispatched a fleet of buses, all painted white, to bring some 21,000 survivors of Ravensbrück and other concentration and labor camps to southern Sweden for asylum and recuperation.
Among the evacuees were some 960 Polish-speaking Jewish women; Zygmunt Lakocinski, a lecturer in Polish at Lund University, volunteered his services as an interpreter.
As the survivors related their experiences, Lakocinski and some colleagues decided to form a committee, which would systematically document the testimonies.
The Swedish government offered to pay for the project, which formally started in October 1945 and continued for one year. It yielded more than 500 lengthy interviews and 20,000 pages of handwritten notes.
One interview contains the recollections of Helena Bard-Nomberg, who ended up in Ravensbrück after surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and a death march.
Speaking of the white Swedish buses, which arrived a few days after liberation, Bard-Nomberg told the interviewer, “I would not leave with the first transport because I could not believe that we were going to freedom.” After climbing on a subsequent bus, “I arrived in Sweden in May . I weighed 30 kg [66 pounds]. Now [one year later], I weigh 45 kg (99 pounds).”
The testimonies of the Ravensbrück survivors represent an invaluable resource, according to Stromqvist.
“What’s so exceptional about these testimonies is that they were given in real time, while the survivors’ wartime experiences were still fresh in their minds, not years or decades later,” he said. “We get constant inquiries from children and grandchildren of these survivors, as well as from scholars and researchers.”
Included in the new formal archive will be prisoners’ notebooks, diaries, poems, recipes, photos, drawings and official Nazi documents, as well as transcripts of the 1946-47 trial in Hamburg of the Ravensbrück commanders and guards.
All the written material will be translated, categorized, digitized and made available to a worldwide 21st-century audience through a searchable website and traveling exhibits.
In the first official fundraising project in its history, Lund University hopes to collect $350,000 from alumni and friends, said Pacific Palisades resident Robert Resnick, chair of the campaign committee and a real estate developer active in the Jewish community. He studied at Lund University in 1972-73 as an exchange student from UC Berkeley.
Lund University has its roots as a study center for Franciscan priests, beginning in 1438, but was officially established in 1666. In December 2016, the university will celebrate its 350th anniversary, with the Ravensbrück Archive slated to be among the displays.