The town sits at the confluence of three perfect little lakes, a charmingly idyllic town of old-world gothic-style huts mixed with more modern but still quaint stucco and tile. The streets are cobblestone, and the citizens amble about without rush, stopping to chat outside small stores, pushing carts laden with bags to their homes on quiet cul-de-sacs devoid of traffic. The church sits in the center of town, its steeple the tallest structure for miles, visible from every part of the surrounding countryside. A green park sits on the shore of the largest of the three lakes that ring the little town, old people sit on benches staring out at the water while small skiffs and sail boats zoom around the lake. Three children play soccer on an improvised pitch, laughing and shrieking as the ball splits the goalposts for a score. Across the lake, in full view of the park and the town sits a tall stone pillar, a statue of a woman atop the pillar holding another in her arms and gazing out over the lake toward the town. Behind the monolith is a towering stone wall, a few crumbling chimney stacks and peaked roofs jutting over the top.
The town is called Fürstenberg, and it lies an hour north of Berlin, Germany, an easy train ride across lush green farmlands dotted with wooden hunting blinds, towering windmills spinning in the light breeze, and patches of dense forests, farmhouses and sleepy little hamlets with dirt roads crowded up against the train tracks. Fürstenberg is bucolic and whimsical, a relaxing vacation spot within easy reach of Germany’s bustling capital city. This quiet little town of relaxing frivolity hides a dirty little secret though, and this secret is the reason we’ve come to visit. That towering monolith with the statue of the woman overlooking the lake marks the site of the notorious Ravensbrück Concentration camp, Hitler’s brutal prison for women and children, where as many as 60,000 political prisoners were murdered during the war. For six years, Ravensbrück’s crematoriums belted out smoke and ash as bodies burned and the residents of the quaint little town of Fürstenberg looked on with indifference, ignoring, and in many cases, even enabling the murder and torture taking place across the picturesque little lake.
We disembark the train from Berlin and stand a moment on the platform, the same platform where the scared victims of the Nazi purges once huddled before being prodded on the march through town. We take the same walk, past shops and houses that weren’t here 80 years ago, but picturing in our minds the way it would have looked then. Residents of the town watching as SS overseers pushed and prodded the women and children being herded toward their doom. It would have seemed surreal to the prisoners, the beauty and tranquility of the charming town luring them into a sense that everything was going to be all right.
The walk is almost two miles, the road becoming a single lane of cobblestones that winds through the deciduous forest of mixed hardwoods, obscured views of the blue lake shimmering through the trees. It would have seemed impossible to the prisoners that doom and death waited for them in such a beautiful location.
The first houses we see were once the houses where the prison guards—mostly women recruited and trained by the SS—would have lived. They still stand, used now as some sort of retreat where people sit on the balconies and watch us march past.
We enter the Ravensbrück concentration camp and stand just inside the gate gazing out at the compound. The buildings that once housed the prisoners have mostly been razed, and black pumice stone covers the ground where they once stood. We are nearly alone in the camp, and we walk quietly back toward the few buildings that still stand, an audio guide that Tracy downloaded playing quietly from her phone, telling us what everything used to be when this camp held thousands of women and children prisoner. We walk into one of the buildings and see statues standing in the shadows of the hallway, eerie sentinels of blasted stone that are like something from a horror movie. They stand silently, and no placard tells us what they are for. We never do find out. There are no guides, no employees at all, and only a few other guests wandering in silence around the abandoned camp.
The camp is expansive, once holding tens of thousands of prisoners. The women and children who were interred here were mostly political prisoners, and they were not necessarily marked for death, though toward the end of the war, more than 80 a day were dying through disease, starvation, or execution. The women overseers of the camp, trained by the Nazi SS and recruited from both Fürstenberg and the surrounding area, were evil—brutal and uncaring. Whips rang out regularly for the slightest of infractions, and the gas chamber was always waiting for the death sentences that occasionally came down from the SS command.
And the town of Fürstenberg sat quietly across the lake and ignored it all.
With 80-plus deaths and murders each day, the crematorium was always busy, burning bodies into ash, smoke belching from its twin smoke stacks almost constantly. The smell of burning bodies and the particles that would have carried across the lake on the wind would have left no doubt as to what was happening in this “camp.”
But the town of Fürstenberg sat there quietly and paid no mind to the atrocities.
The Ravensbrück Rabbits were a group of nearly 100 women imprisoned in the camp who became the test subjects of Nazi doctors studying various diseases and infections. In Hitler’s Hell for Women, the Rabbits were nothing but laboratory animals as the doctors used their limbs to study and recreate war wounds. They would bring women into their tents, cut open their bodies and intentionally infect those wounds with bacteria, wood chips, and glass, trying to cause gangrene so they could study it. They experimented with removing and damaging nerves, muscles, and bones in an effort to learn how to better operate on Nazi soldiers who were wounded in the war. The Rabbits suffered and died despite the other women in the camp protecting them and starving themselves to give the victims extra food, clothing, and blankets. Women risked their lives to smuggle out messages to the outside world in letters home with extra paragraphs written with urine as an invisible ink. They reported these doctors and their medical experiments in the hope that help would somehow arrive.
But the town of Fürstenberg sat silent, condoning the horror through silence.
The Pietá of Ravensbrück is the name given to the statue of the woman holding another in her arms, standing atop the stele and gazing over the lake toward Fürstenberg. She seems to cry for help from the residents, as the women and children of Ravensbrück once did. The church steeple, clearly visible from the concentration camp, the clanging of it’s bells which would have been audible across the small lake, seems to stare back with indifference to the suffering Pietá. The same indifference the town once showed to the victims of Nazi horrors taking place right next door to them.
Ravensbrück is Fürstenberg, Germany’s dirty little secret, and the shame of that secret casts an indelible shadow over the otherwise idyllic little town.