In 1941, the United States entered World War II, just two years before I was born. While I was happily kicking my feet in the air, gleefully juggling toys and stuffed animals on a blanket spread out on our sunny back yard, my parents smiling beside me, more than 100,000 women (and some men) of 40 nationalities were being imprisoned, starved, diseased, frozen, beaten, whipped, tortured, raped, gassed, shot, hung, murdered, medically experimented on and used as slave labor.
I’ve wanted to learn what life was like when I was a little child–more than hairstyles, skirt lengths, kitchen appliances, cars, good ole ’40s films, etc.–I’ve wanted to understand the thirties and forties, WWII, and its precursor WWI. So recently I’ve read about and studied this era passionately.
In 2022 I discovered possibly the most well-researched book I’ve ever read: Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women. Immensely researched, thorough, detailed, factual, full of interviews, personal experiences, diary excerpts, and newly discovered source material, it awes me into gratitude for its amazing author: Sarah Helm. The 743-page book, copywrite 2015, is staggeringly impressive. Life-changing. If you are brave enough, read it.
Ravensbruck was the only Nazi concentration camp built for women. About 50 miles north of Berlin, it existed from 1939 through April 1945. What happened at Ravensbruck has largely been hidden. At the end of the war, Nazis burned records before they left. In fact, in the beginning and on purpose, Ravensbruck itself was hidden away in woods beside a lake with little notice. Thanks to Helm’s book (and others who lived and shared its agony) Ravensbruck’s crucial role in the holocaust and destruction of tens of thousands of lives is now known. More than forty nations were represented among its prisoners. About 20% were Jews. Catholic Poles, Jehovah’s witnesses, Gypsies, countesses, lawyers, doctors, relatives of well-known political figures were among its prisoners. What went on there is more horrific than I dare write about. It is worse than whatever holocaust movies you may have seen. From 1939 through April 1945 more than 140,000 women (and children and some men), were imprisoned there and/or worked/lived in its 40 satellite camps (some slave labor camps built and operated by Siemens, world-wide supplier of parts, today the 5th largest company in Germany–so befriending Nazis paid off then and still–how fair is life!?). There is no accurate count as to how many prisoners were killed; plus, due to what was done to them, many suffered and died after liberation in ’45.
I want you and the world to know about Ravensbruck; but I don’t want to talk about it. So many of the survivors said the same: “I don’t want to talk about it.” They also said when they got back home that no one wanted to listen, to know about what happened, pretending it didn’t. But the historian in me (only recently have I realized in this artist lies a secret historian) says tell it all, know the truth, get it out, so nothing like Nazism will ever happen again. The deceit, the lies, the autocracy, the evil that sneaks up on a society, how subtly it takes over and then it’s too late. We need to know the truth even when it’s horrible in order to prevent it. We need to understand what causes it. Then we need to rid every evil speck from government, society, religion, personal relationships. We need to stay resolutely on the golden path: “doing unto others as we’d have them do unto us. The same path where knowing the truth will make you free.
Artwork: Out of the Box, acrylic, framed, approx. 42″ x 45″, $1,000. Part of a series, this was painted several decades ago, using Rouault-like lines and black tones to express depression, hardship, challenge, agony–the darker elements of life that a woman sometimes faces. But a peek of optimism is embedded in the title in the first word: “out”. She will free herself.