Just when you thought you knew all about the Holocaust camps, Helm (A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, 2006) chronicles the history of this much-ignored site for women.
It was little different from other camps, its primary purpose removing those who would sully the German gene pool and using them as slave labor. In the Nazis’ obsessive record-keeping, each inmate had a file and was identified by a colored patch dividing them into political prisoners, asocials (lesbians, prostitutes), Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jews. Prussian efficiency required paperwork and approvals for every action or move. Even punitive beatings (as opposed to the everyday cruelties) required the signature of Heinrich Himmler himself. However, this is not really the story of the deaths by gas, firing squad, lethal injection, poison and neglect (starvation); the author smartly focuses on the incredible ways that a wide variety of women fought to survive. Those who were sent to factories, like Siemens, purposely sabotaged the arms they worked on. The imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses and Red Army medics succeeded in refusing to work on armaments. Poles who had been used in medical experiments found a way to smuggle their stories out written in their own urine. Not all had the strength to withstand the barbaric conditions, and 40,000 to 50,000 of the 123,000 prisoners died. Only a Swedish mission miraculously saved 17,000 lives toward the end of the war. This camp isn’t well-known for a number of reasons: The staff destroyed all records, it was in the Russian zone, victims wouldn’t discuss it, Russian prisoners were actually punished for being caught, the camp was on a smaller scale, and the contention was that “they were only women.”
Not just another tale of concentration camp terrors, Helm delivers a gripping story of the women who outlasted them and had the strength to share with the author and us 60 years later.