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The Concentration Camp for Women

In 1980, researcher Rochelle G. Saidel made her first trip to the Ravensbruck concentration camp on the recommendation of one of Lilith’s founding editors, Aviva Cantor. Designed specifically for women prisoners, Ravensbruck had gone virtually unmentioned in the Holocaust literature written in English, a fact that Saidel has now corrected with the meticulously researched The Jewish Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp (Terrace Books).

Although Jewish women and children made up 20 percent of the approximately 130,000 prisoners in Ravensbruck, the camp was associated almost exclusively with the political dissidents detained there. At the time of Saidel’s first visit, the site had become a shrine to the women killed for their allegiance to Communism, and made no mention of the many women who died there as Jews. The camp, Saidel explains in her epilogue, memorialized the women by country, not by religion—at least not when that religion was Judaism. The Polish Jewish women who perished in the camp were acknowledged along with the Polish Catholic victims by means of a memorial room that featured a large crucifix.

Enraged at this disparity, Saidel began to investigate both the history of the camp and the creation of the memorial. Over two decades later, she has now compiled her findings, along with interviews and photos, into a thoroughly documented testimony of the presence and brutal experiences of the Jewish women in this camp.

Among the survivors appearing in the book is Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, sister of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Though not Jewish and born an American, the Nazis detained Gemma as a “special prisoner,” held suspect for her connection to Fiorello and for her marriage to a Hungarian Jew who was later killed by the Nazis. Saidel offers a cogent synthesis of existing information on the LaGuardias, but as in other chapters, her focus is more on the chronology of events than what they reveal about Gemma or Fiorello as people, or about the particular nature of Ravensbruck as a concentration camp for women.

Most of the insights Saidel does include are in regard to the memorial and how it has slowly changed to reflect the camp’s figurative relocation to the west. In her conclusion, she states: It is not difficult to comprehend the reason that Jewish victims were previously left out, or why they are now included. The way we memorialize any event is colored by who is doing the remembering and for what purposes.

Idra Novey is a poet and translator, an editor for the poetry journal Rattapallax, and a teacher in Columbia’s undergraduate Writing Program.