The other day my boss said to me ‘Guiguiste, next weekend we are going to Germany to film a theatre production’. I had no idea at the time that I was saying yes to going to a place, which is most probably one of the most moving places I have ever been to in my life. That is …. The National Memorial Site in Ravensbrück.
I would like to share my exceptional experience from this weekend with you, which has moved me so greatly and changed the way I feel and be able to revisit a part of our European history with you.
After driving for some time through areas of magnificent countryside surrounded by beautiful lakes and vast pine forests I finally arrived at the camp. I went through tall barbed wire fences, which opened up onto the Roll Call area and found myself in front of a large stretch of black rock. On the ground were holes, which marked the old barracks containing 300 prisoners each and several brick buildings used for toilets and a factory. There was a strange kind of energy within the walls, which gave me a vivid feeling of the atrocities that happened here. The rest of my visit quickly confirmed those feelings. We are talking of 60 000 victims in all. As with the other camps during the war, some horrific crimes were committed, but just imagine in a concentration camp solely for women, what awful things could have been carried out here and I promise you , your imagination wouldn’t even come close.
Ravensbruck was the only concentration camp that existed for women. At the end of autumn 1938, a concentration camp was built for women in Ravensbruck, a place which, was very isolated despite being easily accessible and situated within beautiful surroundings, wonderful forests and lakes, with extensive uninhabited grounds. Ravensbruck is located near the town of Furstenbuerg, but separated by the lake Schwedt. There is a road in excellent condition linking Ravensbruck and Furstenburg and Furstenburg is linked directly to Berlin by train.
The first prisoners arrived the 18th of May 1939. They were 860 people in total. Following this, the number of prisoners continued to grow very quickly and in November 1944 the population of the camp had reached a total of 80 000 women and children. The camp echoed every day with prisoners carrying out labour activities and torturers commiting barbaric cruelty. I will tell you a little of what I saw and read about the life within the camp. There is equally a lot of documentation and survivor accounts on the subject, which can be found on the internet.
I have a hard time trying to put into words how I felt when I arrived at the camp. When I walked in it was like a feeling of having a heavy weight upon my shoulders or a horrible lump in my stomach, which doesn’t go away for a long time, if it ever will..
But there is another story linked to this camp, which was my reason for being there. In 1944 a French woman named Germaine Tillon risked her life by hiding writing material on which was writing the operetta ‘Le Verfugbar aux Enfers’ (The available goes to Hell). She used her writing skills as a tool for survival for herself and fellow prisoners, but also as a way of demonstrating her infallible loyalty to the French Resistance. Despite the operetta being a dark comedy, it remains nevertheless true to actual events. She successfully uses humour as a means of depicting the harrowing and monstrous events in which they found themselves. Distancing herself from her own misfortune through the text enabled her to keep faith and strength.
In 2007, just before Tillon’s death a large Parisian theatre company organised a performance of the play to commerate 65 years of the liberation of the concentration camp. The company of actors performed in the old camp to an audience of survivors.
Due to the Icelandic volcano eruption, Eyjafjoll, our company of technicians and actors, like the rest of Europe, found ourselves stuck with no means of flying over to Germany. So fearing that we may have to cancel the production altogether we luckily found a bus at the last minute to drive us there. So on the road I got, accompanied by 20 or so overexcited adolescent choir members, stressed out actors and half of my team. 1200 kilometres later and 17 hours of travelling in an uncomfortable bus, we finally arrived completely exhausted only hours away from the opening of the show. But the sheer willingness to carry this experience out to the end, with the survivors there to watch and the history amongst us, we were able to find enough energy to give an exceptional and very moving performance.
The encounters with the survivors who were able to go back and visit the hell they had been through, their stories about life in the camp and the consequences it had on the rest of their lives, the reality of the history and all the questions that we ask ourselves about how we would have experienced such a situation whether from the point of view of the victim or the torturer or why it took us so long to do anything about it, have brutally changed who I am forever. I am still shocked today about what I have experienced but I am grateful to have experienced it nonetheless and to be able to share it with you.