Ravensbrück: Victims and Perpetrators

The Ravensbrück concentration camp memorial site is educating visitors on the female guards who worked in the camp.

RavensbrückPROVO, Utah (November 13, 2014)—When visitors to the concentration camp memorial site at Ravensbrück, Germany, enter the restored female guards building, they encounter the faces of the camp’s victims and survivors. But following the exhibit deeper, visitors can learn about the women who worked in that camp as guards.

Susanne Luhmann, associate professor and program chair at the University of Alberta, was invited to Brigham Young University to share her presentation, entitled “Perpetrator Representations at the Concentration Memorial Site at Ravensbrück.”

Concentration camp memorials serve as sites of commemoration, research and public education, and traditionally have focused on the victims and survivors. It wasn’t until the 1990s that memorial site professionals began to agree that the sites’ documentation of the Holocaust was incomplete, as they had yet to include the history of the perpetrators.

Today, Ravensbrück is one of only three concentration camp memorial sites that includes a perpetrator exhibit, and the only one to have a focus on the women involved. The female guard exhibit was first conceived in 1992, but the finished exhibit was not opened until 2005. From the beginning, the exhibit faced fierce opposition.

“Perpetrator exhibits raise anxieties over the kinds of interpretations and identifications that they’ll produce among visitors,” Luhmann said. “Whether our pedagogical goal is for visitors to reflect upon their own relationship to the Nazi past and its perpetrators, the reasonable fear is that visitors will variously over- or dis-identify, and in so doing distance themselves from the suffering that the memorial site represents.”

On the exhibit’s lower levels are eight rooms that document the lives and work of the female guards between 1939 and 1945, detailing their rankings with the SS, their duties in the camp and the level of their involvement in the crimes committed therein. An additional room details the women’s leisure and personal lives.

The upper floor document the postwar period and how the women were prosecuted, revealing how many of the former guards were able to escape any form of punishment.

Overall, the exhibit strives to establish the ordinariness of the guards and to counter the sensationalized depictions of them in modern culture. The exhibit contains many firsthand accounts from survivors and guards alike. For her presentation, Luhmann focused on two accounts featured in the exhibit, both dealing with food in the camp.

The first, given by political prisoner Maria Ungurai, relates how prisoners were actively mistreated and deprived of food. “I wanted to take my bread and she stood on my hand with her boot. I looked up. ‘Like a dog,’ she said. And I, I still didn’t understand. And she gave me a shove and I fell face on in the mud. And I knew that I had to eat like a dog.”

The second, given by an anonymous female guard, gives a completely different image. “But honestly the prisoners looked after me well. They liked me. When there was something good to eat and I was on night watch, I often asked, ‘So what’s on today? Did you leave some for me?’ ‘Yes, we have everything’ they said. ‘Sauerbraten was really good . . .’ Sauerbraten with crème sauce and dumplings . . . they sometimes put food out there for me because they knew I was hungry.” Luhmann identified this testimony as a false memory, or an attempt to excuse the guards and their actions in the camp.

Luhmann explained that including both accounts was vital to the exhibit’s mission. She concluded, “In this exhibit, food and hunger narratives, together with other survivor testimonies, take on the difficult assignment of establishing the culpability of the guards, a task that most of postwar legal and social responsibilities fail to live up to.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Photo: Ravensbruck Memorial Center, courtesy of Susanne Luhmann