>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Ravensbrück was special amongst the Nazi concentration camps
in that it was by far the largest one specifically for women. That doesn't mean it was any less cruel than the other camps. Not at all. It was mainly a forced-labour camp, just like most other camps on German soil. The work the women had to do included making and mending SS
uniforms and manufacturing electronic components at an adjacent Siemens production facility. Ravensbrück wasn't exclusively a women's camp, though – a smaller men's camp was later added too.
The camp started operation in 1939 and was expanded in several stages over the years. In the last phase, from summer 1944, transports from the east, i.e. from the camps "evacuated" in Poland
, only exacerbated the camp's overcrowded conditions. At one point thousands were housed in a simple large tent without any sanitation or other facilities. It wasn't until April 1945 that Ravensbrück was finally liberated by the Soviet
In total over 130,000 women and 20,000 men went through the camp. A large proportion of these did not survive. Figures as to how many perished in Ravensbrück vary widely. Initial post-war estimates of up to two thirds of the inmates having lost their lives here were later revised downwards. Today the estimate given at the memorial site itself is 28,000 dead. Still a horrific enough figure. And even those who survived were of course scarred for life at least psychologically – such were the horrifying living and working conditions here.
Just beyond the perimeter of the former Ravensbrück concentration camp lies the area of the former Uckermark concentration camp, which was a semi-separate detention centre for female young "offenders" (which could have been the smallest of offences, like simply being "difficult" and "recalcitrant"). Once they reached the age of 21 they would be transferred to the main camp. In early 1945 the girls' camp was closed and the site used as a kind of death camp for Ravensbrück inmates who were too sick, old, weak and no longer able to work. They were then just left here to slowly waste away and die. (Of this camp barely anything remains today; but a signposted walking path has been installed in recent years – see also below
Medical experiments were conducted at Ravensbrück too (cf. Dachau) and in the last months of the camp's existence there was even a gas chamber in which it is assumed several thousand inmates were murdered. The main purpose of the camp, however, was not that of a death camp
but that of a forced-labour camp.
It was also from Ravensbrück that the SS
"recruited" those women that were coerced or forced into "sex labour", i.e. into prostitution, namely at other camps' brothels, such as Buchenwald
, and also Auschwitz
. At the time of my visit (September 2012) there was a special exhibition on about the plight of the camp brothel women – an aspect that in official commemoration had long been neglected amongst all the range of horrors of the KZ system.
The women incarcerated and exploited at Ravensbrück came from a wide variety of nations and for all manner of reasons … and non-reasons – such as being deemed "asocial" or having had "racially disgraceful" relationships. One group of totally innocent women included the female population of Lidice
, who, in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich
in 1942, were all sent here – after their men had been massacred at the village (which was then razed to the ground) and their children either gassed at Chelmno
or given away for adoption to be "Germanized".
parts of the grounds of the former concentration camp of Ravensbrück remained occupied by the Soviet
army right up to their withdrawal in the 1990s in the wake of Germany
's reunification. But a small section had already been dedicated as a memorial from 1959; and the old cell block of the camp's prison housed the first exhibition and was expanded during the GDR
era in several stages (see below
As usual in the GDR and Eastern Bloc
memorials of this type in general, the interpretation of the site had the usual slant of emphasizing "anti-fascist resistance" and communist
martyrs, but neglecting other groups of victims, especially Jews (see also Münchner Platz
). Only since 1993, when the site became part of a newly founded memorial association of the region, could this slowly be rectified and a more appropriate commemoration be developed.
Expansion and modernization are still ongoing, but already there's a lot more to see than in previous decades. Parts of the former camp grounds remain overgrown and inaccessible, but many others have been cleared up, structures renovated and a few of them now house a rather fragmented array of exhibitions, distributed over several buildings.
A major step in bringing the site into line with the contemporary memorial culture in Germany
came in April 2013 with the opening of an all-new main historical exhibition in the former administrative block.
But when I revisited Ravensbrück in April 2017 there were signs that informed about yet more state-funded renovation work that is ongoing, e.g. at the former waterworks and garage building of the camp and also the prison block. So it will be interesting to follow the further developments at this place and come back again.
What there is to see: A lot more than you might expect from such a long-neglected site. On my first visit (in September 2012) I spent about five hours exploring this vast complex even though parts of the grounds were still fenced off due to refurbishing and safeguarding work, and the main historical exhibition hadn't even opened yet. I returned in April 2017 specifically to see that new exhibition, which alone can take a couple of hours to cover.
The first port of call on arrival in any case is/should be the visitor centre (a purpose-buildt modern structure by the car park that opened in 2007). There isn't that much to see inside, but you can pick up leaflets and maps (also in English), and also see the large-scale model of the expansive grounds of the camp as it was at its peak of operation. In addition there were a few information panels on selected individual fates and stories of women of Ravensbrück.
Afterwards you may first want to go to the main historical exhibition in the former administrative block to get all the in-depth information about the camp and its historical contexts before exploring the expansive grounds and other buildings.
The exhibition is on two floors and starts upstairs. The staircase itself is an original relic – a typical wooden affair often found in institutions of bureaucracy back in the day.
The exhibition is subdivided into several thematic blocks, too many to be listed here in their entirety. The sections are numbered consecutively so you know in which order you're supposed to go through them.
include a closer look at the conditions the inmates lived in (with many personal stories giving it a range of individual angles), the aspects of forced labour both in the camp and at the various satellite camps, death and murder at the camp, the medical side, the SS and the camp guards, liberation of the camp and the post-war history of commemoration at Ravensbrück, from the earliest beginnings in the GDR
era to today.
In addition to the display of artefacts and traditional text-and-photo panels there are also plenty of audio stations as well as interactive screens on which you can play additional footage, interviews and so on. Everything in terms of explanatory texts and audio tracks is bilingual, in German and English (and the English is generally excellent, the odd terminological inaccuracy notwithstanding). Original written material, however, such as the book of camp regulations, is not translated.
Amongst the notable original artefacts on display are a three-tier bunk bed from the camp barracks as well as piece of wooden barrack wall with a window. These are the largest exhibits. Also on display are the usual striped clothes inmates had to wear, items manufactured by inmates in forced labour (e.g. field telephones for the Wehrmacht) as well as personal effects.
With regard to the latter the special female side
of Ravensbrück becomes most obvious. For instance, you wouldn't necessarily find an old lipstick as an exhibit at other concentration camp
memorials! Similarly, items from the depot such as clothes and jewellery represent this unique angle too, as do some of the medical and/or personal hygiene items on display.
The depot, or “Effektenkammer” in German, was the space where clothes and personal belongings of inmates were kept after they had been confiscated. For this the attic of the administrative building was used. You can use the original stairs leading up there – but the attic space these days is mostly empty (except for some items kept in storage there nowadays).
A particularly interesting part of the exhibition deals with resistance and solidarity amongst inmates, including underground communication – for instance there's a shoe on display the heel of which was used to hide some written documents. Illicitly produced poems, study material and drawings also show the power of the will to live under the adverse conditions of camp life. There is even a section about camp songs.
A particularly interesting section is also that about the very different style of commemoration in the
communist GDR era
. Just like at Sachsenhausen
, the perspective in the official memorials was very different from what we are used to these days. Back then there was a hefty bias towards glorifying resistance fighters, in particular the communist
prisoners, of course, while very little, if any, attention was paid to the plight of Jewish or homosexual camp inmates.
In the case of Ravensbrück there was also the extra aspect that this commemoration took place mostly outside the perimeter of the camp as such. Large parts of what used to be the concentration camp
remained in use by the Soviet
military up until 1993 (when the Soviets withdrew as part of the treaties that had paved the way for Germany
's reunification in 1990). Some relics from these Soviet days are also on display in the current main exhibition.
All in all, it's a good exhibition, also from the point of view of international visitors, with a wealth of eye-opening information presented bilingually and with a decent mix of media. If anything, the amount of available information can perhaps be a little overwhelming. But you can always go through the exhibition in a selective manner.
Outside this main exhibition, there is no pre-given order in which to see the rest of the site, in theory any order would do, but this is the sequence in which I did it when I visited Ravensbrück in 2012:
First I headed for the old memorial, i.e. that part of the former camp that was already turned into a memorial site from 1959
, while the rest of the grounds remained in the hands of the Soviet
The focus point of the old memorial is the monument
, a statue of a women carrying another one who apparently was too weak to walk (it's accordingly simply called "Die Tragende" – literally 'the carrying woman'). It is quite a powerfully and realistically grim and dark piece of sculpture by Eastern Bloc
standards. More often the depiction was such that it reflected and inspired heroic resistance, here there is no more than an indication of resolve to simply survive, as the carrying woman blearily gazes ahead over the lake from her vantage point high on a sandstone column …
Behind the monument is the memorial wall – here various (about 20) nationalities of inmates are noted separately, and several feature additional plaques put up by the respective countries and in their languages, a few with translations too.
The overgrown area to the south was cordoned off and a sign said that "a work camp is working in this area", presumably undertaking archaeological field work or something like that … so maybe these parts will one day be opened up to visitors too.
Near the other end of the memorial wall stands the camp's crematorium. Inside, the ovens are still in situ … always a particularly grim sight! Some are draped with flowers and ribbons, others appear raw and as if they had been in use until only yesterday. The gas chamber that used to be adjacent to the crematorium, on the other hand, is no longer there. Its position is merely marked by a memorial stone.
Between the crematorium and the garage building a narrow alleyway is marked "execution passage" ('Erschießungsgang'), as it was long assumed that prisoners were indeed executed right here with a shot to the neck (as was common practice in many of the camps). A newer plaque, however, concedes that there isn't any hard evidence to prove that this site did indeed have that function.
On the other side of the crematorium and also part of the first GDR
-era memorial site is the cellblock
of the "bunker", i.e. the camp's special prison where victims were often held in solitary confinement and subjected to all manner of cruelty. Some of the cells are reconstructed, one even has a "Prügelbock" or 'flogging trestle' in it – although it is not known where this type of implement for corporal punishment would originally have been located in the camp.
The majority of cells contain old national memorial rooms
, last redesigned in the mid-1980s. They were still in place at the time of my visit in 2012, and thus provided insights into the previous memorial culture in the communist
era! In addition to rooms for Bulgaria
, etc. you still get rooms dedicated to the victims from the Soviet Union
, i.e. states that have since ceased to exist! A few exhibition rooms have been remodelled since, though, including the one for the former CSSR
, now Czech Republic
, redone in 1996; and an entirely new room dedicated to the Jewish victims (conspicuously absent during the communist era) was added in 1992. Also added more recently was a room honouring the conspirators of the Stauffenberg
assassination attempt on Hitler
in July 1944 (cf. Wolfschanze
, German Resistance Memorial Centre
Like in Auschwitz I
, the national memorial rooms vary wildly in style and general approach. Some are purely symbolic, others also contain informational texts and even a few artefacts.
One such element that was absolutely heartbreaking was a battered teddy bear that came with the following story: it had been donated by the daughter of a former inmate at Ravensbrück. She was told by her mother how it ended up in her possession, namely when in mid-1944 she was working at the tailor's shop and was smuggling out a piece of clothing for a comrade who was ill. She was thus moving very cautiously and taking shelter behind the corner of one of the barracks when a transport of Sinti and Roma ('gypsies') arrived, including a large number of children. She observed how one of the kids, about five years old, who had trouble keeping pace with the others, suddenly dropped something and bent down to pick it up. Immediately one of the SS guards stepped up and hit the kid over the head with his rifle, smashing the child's skull. He then kicked away the object the boy had tried to pick up. It was this teddy bear. When the transport had moved on, the woman rescued the bear and kept him under her clothes for the rest of her time in the camp and even took him with her on the death march when Ravensbrück was "evacuated".
A newer supplementing exhibition (opened 2006) in a side room provided ample description of the cell block and the prison regime, and also included comments on the nature and style of the national memorial rooms. The former parts were mostly bilingual, in German and English (of very good translation quality), but a few extra elements, documents, folders, as well as the interactive screen about the national memorials were in German only.
NOTE: when I revisited Ravensbrück in April 2017 there was a sign to the side of the former roll-call square which said that the prison block was undergoing some form of refurbishment and was therefore temporarily closed to the public. I don't know whether this would be just structural work or if the contents of the various exhibition rooms would also be affected. I will have to check this when I revisit again at some point in the future.
To the north of the prison block lies the expanse of the former main camp. Today, it's mostly an empty field filled with slag and gravel and only indications of the former positions of the rows of barracks in which the women inmates were held. Only towards the back of the area, in its north-eastern corner, several buildings still stand. Some parts of these buildings are in a bad state of near dilapidation. Others were clearly undergoing or had recently undergone some structural refurbishing work. The furthest corner of the outer camp walls had vestiges of the electric fence on them.
I found the semi-derelict character of these parts the most atmospheric of the entire complex. I wondered whether the ongoing modernization of the site will eventually also reach this corner and if so would it preserve some of the atmosphere or will it become too refurbished …
Inside one of the buildings, namely the former tailor's workshop
, is another
comparatively recent exhibition
. It's about the slave labour that women of Ravensbrück were forced to do here, such as sewing clothes for the SS
. The texts in this exhibition are in German only, though.
In another room there was an extra exhibition
about the special youth camp Uckermark
that was located right next to Ravensbrück main camp. Apparently, there's been a long campaign to give this site proper recognition too (see also below
), as this is an angle of the Nazi
reign of terror that is indeed not very widely known. A few bilingual info panels provided an overview of the initiative in English too. The special exhibition as such, however, was again in German only.
NOTE: these angles (forced labour, the Uckermark camp) have been incorporated into the new main historical exhibition. Whether the separate exhibitions will still be there, or if they've been deemed redundant and were removed, I don't know. On my latest revisit in April 2017 I didn't have the time to check this, as I had only allocated enough time for the main exhibition. When I go back again at some point I will also inspect these more remote corners of the vast camp area again.
A large concrete exhibit by the entrance to this building is the big stone roller that the women had to drag manually for paving the camp's paths and roads. It used to be part of the old memorial by the lake but had recently been moved here where it is now protected from the elements.
Also in the "foyer" of the old workshop building is a group of sculptures depicting concentration camp inmates. Originally they were put up outside the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof
in 1995. There they fell victim to vandalism, half of them were completely smashed up. The remainder were then sent on a tour to be temporarily displayed at various locations. Again, they suffered from vandalism attacks, repeatedly even, before they finally found their permanent home here at Ravensbrück.
Beyond the perimeter of the main camp
, i.e. where the men's camp
used to be as well as the big tented camp
, work was going on at the time of my first visit. These parts were to be incorporate into the memorial grounds too (and by now this will presumably long have been finished), but at that time they were still fenced off. Some additional information panels were already in place, as was one of the typical railway carriages used in transports/deportations. It was placed near the semi-preserved former storage barracks where the SS
kept consignments of the "booty" sent here from the extermination camps
in the east (such as Majdanek
South of the camp wall and the fences that warned of the dangers of an ex-military site
(even of left-over ammunition) I could make out inscriptions on the walls in Cyrillic … an indication of the legacy of the Soviet
use of the site. Another are the characteristically fan-shaped metal bars on some of the windows on the old workshop buildings. These are very reminiscent of Russia
(and probably came from there too).
More is to be seen outside the actual camp perimeter
to the west. The main camp gate
by the way, is not really a gate, just a gap in the wall these days, and there's no "Arbeit macht frei" sign or anything like that here (unlike at Dachau
and, most prominently and iconically at Auschwitz
). Incidentally, nor does Ravensbrück feature any of those typical watchtowers familiar from other concentration camps
– the only one you can make out in the out-of-bounds overgrown parts is from the period when the area was used by the Soviet military.
Next to the former camp's main gate is the old gatehouse which is now home to a quiet memorial room featuring a wall of photos and names plus a big book of names listing the camp's victims.
Opposite the main ex-administrative block with the historical exhibition is the former garages. In this there's a cinema where a film about Ravensbrück is shown in different alternating language versions throughout the day, in the sequence German, English, French. The English version was on at 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. – it provided some good impressions of the workings of the camp, but is not absolutely essential for understanding the memorial as such. (NOTE: this was as I found it on my first visit in 2012; when I revisited I did not check this building again, so can't be sure whether these details are still correct. The memorial's website unfortunately has no information on this either.)
Adjacent to the cinema room was the special exhibition already mentioned above: the one about the fate of the women selected for the camp brothels at other concentration camps
such as Buchenwald
. Remarkably, this exhibition was entirely in English (apparently a translation of an earlier travelling exhibition on the subject). The topic has now been integrated into the main exhibition. Its original space next to the cinema is now used for regularly changing extra temporary exhibitions
West of the camp and the former administrative HQ was the SS housing estate
, i.e. where the guards and commandants lived – and after WWII
military. Some of the buildings have been turned into a youth hostel (since 2002), but one houses a special exhibition about the female camp guards
of Ravensbrück, and one of the former officers' houses features another separate exhibition
about their male counterparts and superiors, in particular the main camp commandants
. Both these supplemental exhibitions were bilingual, in German and (again very good) English.
The commandants and their families certainly had it comfy in their little mansions, living a carefree private life only yards from the walls behind which utter horror reigned. It's always puzzled me how it could have been possible for the wives of these SS officers to maintain a happy family charade in such locations.
I found the other exhibition about the female guards
or "matrons" (as the exhibition calls them) at Ravensbrück especially tough going – personally, emotionally, that is. It is just as good as the other memorial elements, but I always find it harder to try and get to understand these lower ranks of the perpetrators, in this case young women! These were the ones who actually meted out the physical and psychological cruelty towards their victims (instead of just giving orders and keeping the surrounding bureaucracy ticking over, as the commandants did). I'm not being sexist here, in being more shocked by brutality meted out by women rather than that by men; it just is the case that men being aggressive and cruel is the common denominator encountered at sites such as this. You expect that. Women doing the same (or worse?) is very much the exception in the larger context of the concentration camps. That's why it also has a more shocking effect. It's of course also this aspect that sets Ravensbrück apart from all other concentration camps
and their memorials.
At the same time the "matrons" of Ravensbrück recorded their private lives outside the camp when off duty in the rosiest of colours – as family photo albums document in rather shrill contrast to what their "professional duty" actually was here.
Some infamous names are dropped in the exhibition, such as Irma Grese, known as the "beautiful beast" of Ravensbrück. There's a whole wall of photos of these SS women, many of whom managed to slip from the grip of justice and blend into an undisturbed civilian life after the war. On the other hand, there are also detailed accounts of the various tribunals in which some of the women were tried and sentenced.
This concludes the current commodification
at the site of Ravensbrück itself.
But there are also some more older elements by the road back to Fürstenberg: another group of sculptures
of camp inmates carrying a collapsed (dead?) child victim, this time on a stretcher. And by the gate to the whole complex there's still an old Soviet tank on a plinth
as a memorial to the liberation of Ravensbrück by the Red Army.
A rather odd monument of sorts is the empty building on a plot of land to the left of the road (coming from Ravensbrück). This was supposed to become a new supermarket in 1991. After this caused international outrage the plan was eventually dropped and the finished building has been left empty and unused ever since. Quite a poignant reminder of how easily commemoration can slip and how easily lines of appropriateness can be overstepped at such heavily charged sites.
To sum up: I found the semi-developed state that the memorial site was in at the time of my first visit (9/2012) quite captivating. It felt more raw, more like exploring untouched relics (something that probably spoke to the urban explorer streak in me). But it is obvious that a lot of conservation work is/was indeed needed here. And when that's all finished, the atmosphere will most likely change somewhat – to the better, at least from the point of view of the current standards of what such memorial sites are supposed to look like. I just hope they'll leave some of the rougher edges too …
The exhibitions already in place when I was first there were highly captivating. And the new main historical exhibition in the former administrative block that I came to see on my revisit in April 2017 has certainly added to the excellence of the Ravensbrück memorial site. And yet more can be expected for the future, as more refurbishing and development is ongoing.
What is already clear is that Ravensbrück has joined the top league of dark sites in the whole of Germany
, and there's even plenty of scope for further improvement. If you've been to Dachau
, then you ought to come here too. It's highly recommended!
Ravensbrück is just east of the small town of Fürstenberg/Havel in the north-east of Germany
, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Berlin
Access and costs: somewhat off the beaten track, but not too difficult to get to, especially from Berlin; free admission.
To get there you can either drive your own (or hire) car – the site is signposted "Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück" from Fürstenberg, which is on the main B96 overland road from Berlin
to Stralsund. There's plenty of parking right by the visitor centre. You can also get a train from Berlin's Central Station (Hbf) – the hourly regional express line RE5 to Stralsund/Rostock stops at Fürstenberg. From the station it's a signposted walk of ca. 2 miles (3km) taking 20-30 minutes – or you could get a taxi.
Opening times: The Ravensbrück memorial site is open daily between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. in summer (May to September), but only to 5 p.m. in winter. NOTE: during the summer season the exhibitions within the site as well as the visitor centre close earlier (namely 6 p.m.) than the grounds and remain closed all day on Mondays! So make sure you go on a different day of the week! It's also a good idea to get there early. The whole memorial complex is closed over Christmas and on New Year's Eve/Day.
Time required: a lot!!! On my first visit alone I spent some five hours here – and that was before the new main exhibition in the former administrative block had opened. When I returned specifically to see that exhibition it took me about an hour and a half to go through it (but I could have spent significantly longer had I read everything there was and used all the audiovisual material).
So, in total you'll have to allocate the best part of a whole day for a comprehensive visit. You may even want to consider spreading it over two days rather, in order to avoid information overload in doing it all in one go.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Right to the south-east of Ravensbrück was another camp: the Uckermark “Jugendschutzlager”
, the 'protective custody' camp for juvenile delinquents, but in reality basically a concentration camp
for under-age girls. In the last few months of the operation of Ravensbrück this neighbouring camp was also used as mass murder site. The site is still not properly commodified for visitors, except for a few information panels and some online materials there's nothing there. But that may change. The Ravensbrück website still says that the site is currently inaccessible, but that may no longer be correct. In any case you'd have to walk or cycle there. Maybe next time I'm in the area I will try to check this out for myself.
Looking a bit further: Berlin
isn't so far – in fact since Ravensbrück could be done as a day/two-day excursion from that city, Berlin
would make the perfect base for exploring beyond that superb city's limits.
Also north of Berlin is Harnekop
, a Cold War
-era nuclear bunker for the former GDR
's leadership. Thematically much more fitting, however, would be a trip to Sachsenhausen
, another one of the big concentration camp
memorial sites, located just beyond the edge of Berlin. In fact, the train to Ravensbrück passes through Oranienburg, the stop for Sachsenhausen. But it would not realistically be possible to do both sites in a single day.
In the other direction, it's a couple of hours' drive to the Baltic Sea coast, where Peenemünde
, on the island of Usedom, and Prora
, further west on the island Rügen, provide two totally unique and very different other insights into the whole Nazi portfolio of madness. And finally west of Berlin there's the site of one of the T4 euthanasia
centres at Brandenburg
, just to complete the whole grimness of that picture.
For places further afield see also under Germany
Combinations with non-dark destinations: This is a very empty and quiet part of Germany – in fact it has been suffering from severe population drain for more than two decades. That's simply because there are so few opportunities for the young, so they move away and leave behind an ageing, increasingly under-supplied population … and the concomitant problem of right-wing extremism amongst the young males that stay behind (while most women are gone) …
For tourists there is precious little to do as well – unless the peace and quiet and flat expanses of lakes and forests is exactly what you're after. Then it is a rewarding area. Otherwise move on, either north to the Baltic coast, or south to Berlin
See under Germany
in general as well.