The testimony of Leokadia Kwiecińska, a Ravensbrück prisoner, b. 1900, an office clerk, resident of 22 Lipca (Spokojna) Street 8, flat 2.
It was 5.00 p.m. on 22 February 1941 when two Gestapo men showed up at my flat. They wore civilian clothes but, having seen them at the door, I knew who they were and that they had come for me. I took them to my room and a preliminary interrogation began. I realized immediately that the plan was to confront me with accomplished facts since they supposedly knew everything about me and only wanted me to accept all the charges. I told them that they were wrong, that I did not know the people whom they mentioned, etc. I was told to get dressed and to go with them to the Castle. It is a huge landmark building, a former royal residence which had long served as a prison.
At the castle, I was confronted with somebody who had allegedly given a detailed testimony about me. It was apparent that the man whom they showed me had been severely beaten. When he was being taken out of some room to the corridor where I was waiting, four Gestapo men fell on him like vultures, carefully examining the expression on his face. After the confrontation, I was taken to a cell.
It was a room with one barred window giving onto the prison walls. The iron beds fixed to the wall suggested that it was designed to accommodate nine people. I was the twenty- third. The other inmates were a very diverse group: some political prisoners, a few arrested for illegal trade, prostitution, or crossing the so-called border, and one for murdering her husband. The sanitary conditions were woeful. The place was damp and billows of dust and the odor of mustiness from the mattresses filled with old straw pervaded the room each time the beds were being made up. We slept crammed like sardines in a barrel.
Later, we were transferred to a cell with 22 beds but there were 56 of us. The cell had two little windows giving onto the prison yard but these windows were covered with wooden baskets from the outside so that air circulated through small holes. The prison food rations were meager. At first, it was barley soup for lunch, black coffee for breakfast, and soup made from coarse flour for supper, and a little bread on top of that. Due to the hunger and filth, a spotted typhus epidemic broke out. Many prisoners died. To counter the epidemic, draconian methods of delousing and disinfecting cells and clothes were introduced. One of the most upsetting parts of the routine was the visits paid by SS men at different times of day or night. Since these visits very often portended executions, they were absolutely dreaded. Among the worst thugs serving at the Lublin prison were Schmidt, now deceased, and Dietrich. Before the war, they were considered to be Poles. Allegedly, Schmidt was a judge and Dietrich graduated from the University of Warsaw.
In March, I was driven to the Gestapo station. It was located in a grand building of the former Provincial Land Office. The basement housed prisoners’ cells. I was utterly terrified by the sight of the brightly-lit basement corridors and dark cells, which were only lit by the glow of the corridor lamps, because the cells had iron bars instead of doors. Peeking out from behind them were the ghastly, pale faces of prisoners, some of whom had been kept there for many long months. Intensifying the terror were the crass bawls of the guards and the whines and desperate screams of the dying victims. I saw people on the edge of insanity, who had lost all human traits, having been completely dehumanized through terrible means, and I was awaiting my turn.
After a few days, I was taken for interrogation. I will not go into the details. Having been beaten unconscious and kicked, I had water poured on me to bring me round. When nothing helped, I was taken downstairs to the so-called solitary cell so I could meet my end there. Falling on the cement floor, I smashed my head, which started to bleed. As a result of the beating, I got a stomach disorder and I vomited. The cell was empty, bar a wooden bunk and a table. I lay there for nine days, only feeding on water, which I drank in huge quantities. Over these nine days, I was interrogated once. This time, they used a method of calm persuasion. When this did not have the desired effect, the thug who interrogated me, venting his anger and wanting my ultimate humiliation, undressed me by force, thus revealing my scarred body to the other thugs gathered in the room. I am mentioning these facts to emphasize the extent of the animalization of these “supermen.” Almost unconscious from humiliation and anger, I was taken back to my cell.
Against the odds, I did not die. On the first day of Easter, after they noticed I was beginning to walk, I was taken to the previous cell, where I met two kind girls, who took care of me in a sisterly manner, and thanks to their efforts I could be taken back to the prison after a few days.
After a seven-month internment, on 21 September 1941 I was taken with a large group of around 150 women to Germany.
In Warsaw, we were merged with a transport from the Pawiak prison. This combined transport, numbering more than four hundred women, was taken to the largest German female concentration camp in Ravensbrück. There, I came across the SS female guards for the first time. Dressed in grey uniforms and long dark cloaks, and with huge German Shepherds on leashes, they cut ominous and depressing figures. The first impression was accurate: usually, these young and often pretty women were devils incarnate. They had the ability to turn the life a wretched prisoner into a trail of tears.
At that time, the camp was being expanded. There were 15 living barracks, the so-called blocks, excluding those which housed workshops. After we had spent the entire day standing in the yard, we were sent to the showers, given camp clothes, and assigned prison numbers, all this happening at a blistering pace, as we were shoved, insulted, and often beaten in the process. I was given number 7682. It was an ordinal number, counting from the first prisoner who had arrived at the camp. Around the time of our arrival, there may have been up to 5,000 women at the camp. The most numerous group was the Germans, then the Poles, Jewesses, and Czechs.
The food was meager. It was bitter black coffee for breakfast, vegetable soup and a couple of unpeeled potatoes without salt for lunch, and some soup or black coffee for supper. Additionally, we received a portion of bread, of little nutritional value, seeing as it contained traceable amounts of grain; twice a week, we got a small piece of margarine and a spoonful of marmalade; once a week, we got a little cheese and a slice of sausage.
The labor was very hard. My first job was to move wardrobes from vans to the SS quarters, and then I poured sand at the foundations of new blocks under construction. This assignment lasted until mid-December 1941. The clothes were very scanty. Immediately after we arrived, they took away all our belongings and gave us the camp garments, consisting of the underwear, a dress, and a jacket, all of which were made of the so-called striped cloth, which was as heavy and rough as it was insufficiently warm. Being rather frail, I was getting terribly cold in these clothes during the long roll-calls held three times a day, and the winter of 1942/43 was extremely harsh.
In December, they opened a new workshop, the so-called “Słoma” [Straw]. Straw was used to manufacture large boots for soldiers fighting on the Russian front. The labor continued around the clock. I could barely handle the night shifts, unable to get over my drowsiness and fatigue resulting from sleep deprivation and lack of food, for hunger was great around that time; there were no roll-calls so that women wouldn’t faint from starvation. We only took comfort from the thought that if they starved us so much, they must have been lacking food themselves.
Unfortunately, we were so wrong about that.
On 1 June 1942, they took away our shoes – the wooden clogs. We had to walk barefoot, regardless of one’s age or condition. It may have been summer already, but early in the morning it was so cold that the rooftops and lawns were often covered in frost. I cannot recall any other time in my life when I was so terribly cold as I was then. We were forced out of the living blocks to attend the roll-call before sunrise, or sometimes – and this was even worse – after a whole night’s work, hungry, lacking sleep, and wearing short-sleeved summer dresses. After the numerical and working roll-calls, sometimes lasting up to three hours, I returned to the block blue from the cold. If you hid your hands under the gown to feel some warmth, you were slapped across the face. The numb hands could not hold a mug of this slop, usually cold already, that they called coffee. I was so cold that, although I had the right to sleep after the night shift, I could not warm myself up under the thin blankets. I slept for two or three hours and I went to work so tired that around 1.00 or 2.00 a.m. I could no longer fight it and, despite the severe punishment in store (for a sabotage), I dozed off, and you had to deliver a given output anyway. But without the help of my more resilient and tenacious comrades, I would not have survived that period, I think. All these torments, however, paled in comparison to the constant prospect of being executed.
Initially, after we arrived at the camp, we thought that we would see no worse than having to stay there. But when on 18 April 1942 they executed thirteen Lublin women from our transport, and then every week they would select others – in smaller numbers, but still – and we learned through back channels that the entire Lublin transport were under death warrants, then every day I woke up thinking, “Is it going to happen today?”
In July 1942, 70 women from our transport were ordered to report to the camp’s head office. Aside from the camp authorities, waiting there were also a few Gestapo men, who turned out to be German doctors. After a few days, the entire transport was summoned, our personal details were checked, and we were told to return to the blocks. We did not know what to make of this. A few days later, the puzzle was solved. The camp authorities handed us over as experimental subjects to Dr. Gebhardt, director of the sanatorium for war invalids in Hohenlychen. We were thus supposed to be his guinea pigs. The first experimental surgeries were conducted on 1 August 1942.
From then, they would systematically select groups of 10 prisoners who then underwent leg surgeries. These surgeries consisted in making incisions on the legs (calves and thighs) and performing a surgical procedure: they removed bone or muscle tissue, removed nerves, or broke or chiseled bones and periosteum. I cannot explain the exact character of these procedures.
I was taken in a group of 12, on 7 October 1942. All of us were operated upon on the same day. The procedures were very tough. A long-lasting high fever ripped through my organism, which was emaciated anyway. Three women from our group died following the surgery. Others suffer from leg conditions and a few are cripples. I have pulled through somewhat. I feel a rather severe pain in my leg, but on the outside it looks the best when compared to the other girls from my group.
After the surgery, I was in bed for six months. I need to emphasize that many of us would not have survived if it had not been for the help of our Polish comrades. These girls risked severe punishment, giving us extra food at the expense of the so-called private kitchen, which served the camp authorities.
We believed that the surgeries would be our protection from the death warrants. This assumption was borne out by facts: one of the patients was summoned to the political division, where they read out a death sentence to her and then they pardoned her; next, another two girls were supposed to be executed, but when, at the eleventh hour, the Germans realized they had had experimental surgeries, the decision was revoked. However, it turned out that we were wrong. The surgeries did not annul the death warrants. In spring 1943, six patients were taken away, including those two who had been previously spared. It should be mentioned that many times the very same person would undergo five surgeries.
No doubt our entire transport would have continued to serve as experimental material until full annihilation. We decided to defend ourselves and would rather expedite the execution than go into surgery without a fight. Thus, when on 15 August 1943 another 10 women were summoned for surgeries, we staged a mutiny, supported by the entire block of Polish prisoners. As expected, the ones who resisted were taken by force and the entire block went into a three-day lockdown as punishment, with no food, no light, and no fresh air. However, this was the last round of surgeries. All the patients were gathered in one block and actually, we did not have to work hard. Maybe we were being kept as experimental material which could still be of use in the future.
In the meantime, the camp was expanding, more new blocks were being erected, until their number reached 32, and they were twice as big as before.
The space was becoming incredibly crammed. In smaller blocks, those with 270 beds, up to 800 people were accommodated, and at larger blocks, which had 426 beds, there were up to 2,000 women. You can imagine the sanitary conditions. Hunger set in again, which was mitigated somewhat when our families sent us parcels.
Almost every European nationality was represented at Ravensbrück. The most numerous group were the Germans. Then, there were a lot of Poles, French, Czechs, Russians, and Ukrainians. Less numerous national groups were Norwegians, Belgians, Dutch, Yugoslavians, and Jewesses. In 1943, Red Army women were brought in. The women were captured near Stalingrad. As soldiers, they should have been placed in POW camps. But the Germans, again in violation of the international law, placed them in a concentration camp and treated them in the same way they did all the others – and this treatment was terrible. In charge of all the camps stood Himmler. Thus, one set of rules applied and one system was in place. There was one clear goal: to exterminate a maximum number of people, but first to take maximum advantage of them, forcing them to put maximum effort into forced labor.
The labor was very hard and was of two types: the so-called Aussen [external] labor, whereby working units toiled off the camp’s grounds, building roads, clearing and planting trees, unloading trains or cargo ships, building huts, and doing all kinds of field and gardening works; and the labor on the camp’s premises, that is in kitchens, laundries, sewing shops, shoemaker’s shops, weaving shops, and the so-called Dachau workshops, where jobs for the military were done, such as sewing underwear, uniforms, coats, gloves, caps, etc. The pace of the work was blistering; we were rushed with beating or, in the best-case scenario, with wild screams. The workers, hungry and tired, vacated their workstations barely conscious. Everyone dreaded the SS men supervisors. The most trivial infraction was enough for them to beat us or denounce us, and in the latter case the worker received 25 whip blows and was placed in jail, where she received a hot meal every four days. We also faced other punishments, such as the standing punishment, whereby you had to stand outdoors for a few hours, regardless of the weather, or the penal block, where the prisoners, completely isolated from the rest of the camp, had to do the hardest labor.
Work, even though it was so hard, was not the worst thing. Much more distressing was the treatment we received, in that every effort was made so a woman would forget that she was a human being. We were being dehumanized in an utterly perfidious and calculating fashion. We were punished for the slightest token of compassion for or a gesture of help to our suffering comrades, for praying, or for wanting to learn. We were humiliated every step of the way. Often, executive positions were given to criminals, degenerated individuals who derived pleasure from torturing prisoners. The prisoners were divided into political, asocial, and criminal. To tell one group from another, they had to wear different triangles: red, black, and green respectively. Among those marked with red triangles were many women who had nothing to do with politics. It was sheer malice on the part of the Germans, who wanted to emphasize who they considered to be the political Poles, often referred to as bandits. We were bullied and humiliated by all means necessary.
From time to time, they conducted block inspections and personal searches, looking for camp publications. After each such inspection, the block looked as if an earthquake had ripped through it. They carried out gynecological searches, allegedly for gold and jewels, and then they offered us duty in the so-called Puff, a brothel for soldiers – all this contributed to such an oppressive atmosphere that it took true mental fortitude not to crack or succumb to a depression. I remember that toward the end of 1944 they summoned Polish political prisoners only, and all the women, regardless of their age, received an offer to volunteer for the Puff. Harassment was all there was to it because they knew full well that no one would volunteer. The response was complete silence. One woman from the group of those who had been operated upon protested such treatment of political prisoners with the commandant. He had her arrested straight away and placed in the bunker, and then he advised the rest of our block that if we kept second-guessing the orders of the camp authorities the death warrants we were under would be executed immediately.
The bestiality of the Germans was also on show in their treatment of the women and children brought in from Warsaw after the uprising had collapsed.
One would have thought that different rules would apply to the evacuees than did to the rest of the camp. However, they received the same treatment, being also beaten, starved, abused, and taken for hard labor to arms and munition factories. Tricked by the Germans, they sometimes brought with them all their assets in gold and jewels, and obviously had to relinquish them all.
Since the camp was grossly overcrowded and the food was getting more meager, infectious diseases started to spread: typhoid and dysentery decimated the camp. The only food was Swedish turnip, initially fresh and then dried and cooked together with unpeeled potatoes, and finally only with peelings. Avitaminosis-related diseases spread, too. Hospital blocks were overcrowded. Despite great efforts and sacrifice of the doctors – female prisoners of different nationalities – it was impossible to contain the increasing mortality rate. These doctors could also do nothing when the German medical staff killed patients with lethal injections. Complete lack of medications and dressings further aggravated the tragic situation of the patients, who were doomed to die unless the organism (as long as it was given enough time) overcame the disease spontaneously. Following the example of Auschwitz, where these methods were widespread, the Germans started to carry out the so-called selection roll-calls. The appointed panels, which comprised doctors (!), would select a particular number of women from different blocks, and their fates were sealed. All it took was gray hair, unhealthy looks, or some bodily defect, and the panel would deem such women unfit for work and as such send them to the gas chamber, and then to the crematory. In March 1945, around 5,000 women were exterminated that way.
The war was nearing its end but the Germans were now as if on the rampage. The two crematory furnaces fumed around the clock. Two shafts of fire shooting from the chimneys were a terrifying sight: the torches of death glowing above the camp. The odor of the incinerated bones and bodies poisoned the air and made you nauseous.
Eventually, they remembered about us, that is the experimental surgery patients, generally referred to as the “guinea pigs.” On 4 February 1945, the senior block prisoner received an order which stated that we were not allowed to leave the block. Having seen what we had seen, we knew what this meant: an execution, as simple as that. We were told that in light of an imminent evacuation of the camp our entire group was to be moved to a safe place. We knew this “safe” place and we also knew that, indeed, we would never be troubled by any earthly problems there, so we opted for a more dangerous stay among the living. We decided to defend ourselves.
I will not go into the details of this struggle because these would be best captured by an action movie. I will only say that we held out for almost three months. We had realized that Dr. Gebhardt wanted to erase the living evidence and that he knew that the day of reckoning had come. Almost the entire camp tried to help us. We decided to buy us some time. The way the situation at the frontline was developing, we all believed that liberation may come any second, plus the camp had plunged into chaos and the discipline had relaxed. It was apparent that the camp authorities were not able to control the situation. Contributing to this disarray were the incoming and outgoing transports, which were barely supervised. That way, 18 “guinea pigs” made it onto outgoing transports and managed to leave the camp. The others, myself included, had remained at the camp and fought for survival, helped by senior block prisoners and room orderlies, who did whatever they could to save us, often putting their own lives on the line.
Finally, the day had come: on 28 April 1945, the gates were opened and we left the camp in the column of 2,000 women, at first escorted by SS men, but still reveling in victory and walking toward our long-lost freedom.