Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 1, 2016

If This is a Woman (2015), by Sarah Helm

If This is a woman
Towards the end of this harrowing book, when I just wanted the horror to end, I found myself considering the effect of writing it on its author.  Sarah Helm’s intention was to rescue the historical truth of a forgotten atrocity, but it must have been a gruelling project.  There’s a quiet  courage between the pages of this book, not to be dismissed because it is of a different order to the heroism among the victims whose fate the reader comes to know.

Sarah Helm became interested in the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp when she was writing A Life in Secrets, Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WW2.  Many Australians will know about this woman who despatched female agents into France for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), from the portrayal of Hilda Pierce in the TV series Foyle’s War or Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond novels and films.  Helm tells us that after the war, Atkins went searching in Germany for her missing agents, 100 of whom were Missing Presumed Dead, and twelve of whom were women.  That took her to Ravensbrück, the only concentration camp specifically for women, and one which was set up in the beginning for dissidents, (Communists from within Germany and its occupied territories, pacifist Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Polish resistance) and people who did not conform to the Aryan ideal – people who were intellectually and physically disabled, the Romani (gypsies), a-socials (prostitutes and habitual criminals) and Jews.  Although there were medical experiments on some of the women, the primary purpose of the camp was to provide slave labour (e.g. for the purpose-built Siemens factory making munitions components) and although a steady number of women were shot and gassed in order to meet extermination targets, the intention was to work the women in inhumane conditions until they became useless and then died.

Inhumane conditions.  An understatement if ever I’ve written one.  But we do not really have words for a succinct description of what happened in Hitler’s slave labour camps.

Late in the book Helm captures some of the incomprehension that surrounds any attempt to understand Nazi Germany.  After the Fall of France, women from the French Resistance are herded into the camp.  They come wearing Hermes scarves and bearing supplies of cologne and French bread and cheese.  And they laugh, because they simply cannot believe what they see.  They try to diminish the evidence of their eyes: it is a dream, it is a mistake, someone will come and take them away somewhere else.  But as Helm so comprehensively demonstrates, the nightmare is no dream.  As the Soviet women comment in interviews after the war, these French women were not hardened to suffering as they were.  The French women die quickly.

So did the children.  There were a lot of children in this camp.  But they had no value as a work force so they were eliminated quickly.  There are not many photos in the book, but the pre-war photos of confident, happy people in smart, clean clothes are poignant, the one of a four-year-old girl called Stella Kugelman most of all.

You might think you know all there is to know about the Nazi camps, but Ravensbrück was different and not just because it was purpose-built for women.  Its location 50km north of Berlin meant that it was behind the Iron Curtain and apart from acknowledging the bravery of its own Soviet communists (just the ones who survived Stalin’s purges), the Soviets were not interested.  It was not until the reunification of Germany that it became possible to research this monstrous place, to learn that female guards and block leaders could be just as evil as their male counterparts, and that women prisoners could respond to their circumstances in so many different ways.  Surprisingly, for a book of this type, it can be uplifting, as when in the final perilous days when the Germans were frantically trying to obliterate all trace of their perfidy, the camp bonds together to ensure the survival of the ‘rabbits’ who survived medical experimentation so that they could give living testimony about what happened.

This was all the more surprising given the differences among the women at Ravensbrück.  The female Soviet soldiers of battles from Stalingrad and elsewhere on Soviet soil marched to roll call in military precision to provide living symbolism that they were Prisoners of War and entitled to refuse work in a munitions factory.  Having no experience of religion, they wanted no truck with a Christmas ‘party’ put on for the children.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses prayed heroically to the God they thought had willed this test of their faith and endured appalling punishments for their refusal to cooperate.  The a-socials, housed together in the most disorderly blockhouse, were despised by everyone because they were prostitutes and criminals, and Helm notes that their testimony is largely missing because after the war these women vanished into anonymity.  The testimony of Jewish and Romani women is largely missing too, because the camp was so efficient at obliterating them, forwarding them on to Auschwitz or shooting them in macabre batches which strained the Ravensbrück crematorium’s capacity to keep up.  Women were torn between taking on roles of responsibility which might aid their own survival in the hope that they could perhaps ameliorate the suffering a bit, and rejecting all forms of collaboration.  Educated and upper-class women had nothing in common with other classes; German Communists hoped for liberation by the Soviets, not the Americans.   All these differences were exacerbated by the Babel of languages as well.

But all of them endured bitter cold, wretched clothing, a starvation diet, barbaric punishments for breaking incomprehensibly trivial rules, gross overcrowding, insanitary conditions, wholly inadequate medical care, appalling working conditions, dehumanising treatment, grief and loss, and the ever-present risk and reality of a brutal death.

The title is a reference to Primo Levi’s If This is a Man in which he writes an invocation beseeching us to meditate on whether humanity is possible in the midst of inhumanity.

If This Is a Man

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.

Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

(I have assumed that quoting this poem in full is not a breach of copyright because it’s on the Primo Levi Wikipedia page with no instructions about attribution):

My thanks to Vicky Blake who told me about this book in comments after my review of Sister, Sister by Anna Rosner Blay because I had noted that there were not many accounts about the female experience of the camps.  I might otherwise not have noticed it at the library…

Author: Sarah Helm
Title: If This is a Woman, Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women
Publisher: Little Brown, 2015
ISBN: 9781408705384
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: If This is a Woman: Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women


  1. Wonderful review, Lisa. I don’t think I will have the courage to read this book. It is hard to believe the atrocities that happened. But I think this is an important book to be read and preserved and discussed about. I hope I can muster up enough courage one of these days to pick it up. I loved that Primo Levi poem you have quoted. Thank you.


    • Thanks, Vishy, it is hard to read books like this (I remember that reading some of the books from India that you recommended were challenging in that way too, but very worthwhile….)


  2. I’m so glad you read the book and appreciated it, Lisa! We read it on the All-nonfiction group where it was nominated by SuLu. I doubt I would have read it had it not been for her nomination and the selection.

    I too was astounded and horrified at the detail Helm provided both on the personal level as well as on how the camp played into the scheme of the whole war. The part about the French women was interesting as were the bits about the Norwegian, American and British women (1 each).

    As you mentioned, immersing herself so thoroughly in the material and then writing about it must have taken a terrible toll on Helm. I know it had an effect on me but I felt I owed it to those women, in some way, to hear their stories.


    • Hi Becky, yes, I had that feeling too, that it was something owed to those women. Each time I read and review a book like this, I feel that I am doing a small thing to keep the story alive, perhaps helping to raise awareness, perhaps one of many doing their little bit to guard against it happening again.


  3. I hope to have the heart to read this book someday. Even that poem is hard to read. Thanks for including it.


    • Oh yes, those last three lines go straight to the heart, don’t they?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Like Levi Primo’s books, this is a slow read for me. It’s hard to take in all the harrowing details, although a part of me feels like they all had to live this in real time, so I should make myself read it in one stretch too.

    Of course, though, part of the witnessing process is to take in what really happened to try and understand it so that it can never happen again….


  5. I agree:: they lived it, so at least I can make myself read it.
    And you’re right: understanding – and passing on – the message that it must never happen again is what’s really important.


  6. Sarah Helm’s exhaustive chronicle reveals the full horror of the Ravensbruck Nazi camp, ‘the capital of the crime against women’


    • Hello, and thanks for your comment. It’s a very powerful book, though I suspect like all attempts to reveal the horror, it cannot really do so. Nothing can.


  7. […] from Nazi Germany had been in Ravensbrück, the camp exclusively for women slave labourers which I had read about in Sarah Helm’s If This is a Woman.  The escape of the women who are featured in The Nine was not from the Ravensbrück camp itself but […]


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