I am writing today in response to a comment made by a person in Germany who wrote: “My entire class was put in a bus and made visit the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp in 1986, when we were 12. We were disappointed to learn that there had been no gas chamber at Ravensbrück.”
I am surprised that these school children were not told about the Ravensbrück gas chamber in 1986 because the existence of a gas chamber at Ravensbrück had already been proved in a court of law. SS officer Johann Schwarzhuber, who was the second in command at Ravensbrück, had given detailed testimony about the gas chamber when he testified at the British Military Court in Hamburg.
Schwarzhuber was one of the 16 staff members of Ravensbrück who were put on trial by the British, from December 5, 1946 to February 3, 1947, on charges of killing women British SOE agents who were prisoners at Ravensbrück.
Prior to being sent to Ravensbrück, Schwarzhuber had worked at Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau. Schwarzhuber was convicted and executed on May 3, 1947.
Vera Atkins, an officer in the British SOE, had interrogated Schwarzhuber on March 13, 1946 and had gotten him to confess to witnessing the murder of the SOE agents. Schwarzhuber filled in all the details that Atkins wanted to hear, about how the women had died bravely and how the SS men had been impressed with their bearing. (Or maybe Vera Atkins wrote the confession for him.)
In his deposition, which was repeated in the courtroom, Schwartzhuber said that Fritz Suhren, the Commandant of Ravensbrück, had ordered him to organize a mass gassing of the women prisoners at the end of February 1945. (This was in the middle of a typhus epidemic.)
Sylvia Salvensen, a former prisoner in the camp, testified in the British court that Cecily Lefort, a British SOE agent, died in the Ravensbrück gas chamber on May 1, 1945. However, it is now claimed that the gas chamber at Ravensbrück was only in operation for two months and that it was destroyed by the SS in April 1945. (Source: “Gaskammern und die Ermordung durch Gas in KZ Ravensbrück” by Anise Postel-Vinay, 1997, pp. 37 – 40)
Here is a quote from Schwartzhuber’s deposition which was read in court: (Source: “Ravensbrück, Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939 – 1945” by Jack G. Morrison )
“There were always 150 women who were forced into the gas chamber at one time. Hauptscharführer (Otto) Moll ordered the women to undress and told them that they were going to be deloused. They were thereupon sent into the gassing room and the door was closed. A male inmate, wearing a gas mask, climbed onto the roof and threw a canister into an opening, which he immediately closed again. I heard moaning and whimpering from inside. I can’t really say whether the women were dead or unconscious because I was not present when the room was cleared out.”
Why would Schwartzhuber confess to the gassing of prisoners at Ravensbrück, knowing that he would be convicted and executed? Maybe for the same reason that Rudolf Hoess confessed: he could no longer endure the torture by the British interrogators. Or maybe to protect his family. The one sure way to get the Germans to talk was to threaten to turn their families over to the Russians.
The former Ravensbrück camp is one of the few Holocaust sites that I’ve never visited. I didn’t go to Ravensbrück because I didn’t think there was anything of interest there; it was only recently, when I read Jack G. Morrison’s book, that I learned that Ravensbrück had a gas chamber.
Still, there’s nothing to see at Ravensbrück because the SS men destroyed the gas chamber before they abandoned the camp. Curiously, the SS did not want the Soviet soldiers to find any of their gas chambers, but they didn’t mind if American soldiers saw the gas chambers at Dachau, so they left them intact.