Guarding the Truth- testimony of a guard at a Nazi concentration camp

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) Margarete Barthel, at her house near Duesseldorf, Germany in 2006 (2) A pile of corpses of Jews & others found in the newly liberated Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp on 16th April 1945. (3) Female prisoners at Ravensbrück gathered in April 1945 when the Red Cross arrived. White paint mark showed they were prisoners.  (4) Execution of guards of the Stutthof concentration camp on 4th July 1946

The total mass murder, genocide and political murders by the Nazi German government is estimated to be over 11 million including the holocaust of about 5.9 million Jews which was around 78% of the total 7.3 million Jewish people in Nazi occupied Europe. Immediately after Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, first Nazi concentration camps were quickly erected in Germany in February 1933.

The number of Nazi concentration camps exploded to over 300 across Europe between 1939 and 1942 during the WWII. Excluding the sub-camps there were 70 major Nazi concentration camps across Europe. A more complete list provided by German Ministry of Justice in 1967 named about 1,200 camps & sub-camps. The camps could be divided into three categories- Concentration camps, Labor camps and Extermination camps. An estimated 4,251,500 people lost their lives in the major 70 camps.

Web edition of the most widely circulated and the oldest newspaper published in Washington D.C., The Washington Post reported on the testimony of a Guard, Margarete Barthel, now 91, who was at the Ravensbrück Nazi Concentration camp in northern Berlin during the WWII. Ravensbrück was the only Nazi concentration camp dedicated to the imprisonment and murder of women.

The road to Ravensbrück is not clearly marked. Its dirt-stained stucco houses remained frozen for over half a century by communism of East Germany and its fields and woods stretch towards Poland in the east. The ribbon of asphalt dips past a pristine lake and an aging Soviet tank. With few clinging strands of wire, the concrete fence posts of Ravensbrück appear.

A couple of rows of 3 storied chalets with brown shutters and porches overlook the reed-lined pristine lake shore. Margarete Barthel recognized those as “wonderful houses” as she was gazing out the car window. Margerete and her daughter Monika came to visit the place. She had told her children that the lake district of Mecklenburg was beautiful. She waited for years for the Berlin Wall to fall, to return and gaze across the water at the red-tiled roofs of Fuerstenberg town.

Since the cold war ended, hundreds of women had made this pilgrimage, passing through the outer wall and foundation lines of the barracks once more. Many barracks of Ravensbrück were destroyed. Over 130,000 female prisoners had gone through the Ravensbrück camp establishment during the WWII, among which 26,000 were Jewish and 40,000 were Polish. Just between 15,000 and 32,000 of the total prisoners survived. Many of the slave labor prisoners were employed by the German electrical engineering company Siemens and Halske.

Almost all of the visitors who pass through the town after half a century are the holocaust survivors. They incessantly get drawn back while braving the grief and infirmity of retracing the bumpy road. Margarete Barthel walked into the main exhibition hall of the town on a summer day in 1996.

Margarete was 74 back then. She scanned the photos at the hall for faces she might know. The guide who approached Margarete perhaps took her for a typical Polish communist or a Czech Jew or a French resistante. Then Barthel revealed that she had been a guard here. The memorial director and East German Historian, Sigrid Jacobeit, on one floor below, was immediately telephoned.

It caused a sensation, as never before had any of the 3,500 young German and Austrian women trained to work as guards at the Ravensbrück or elsewhere returned and declared herself openly.

Jacobeit said ‘Here was this woman, looked so grandmotherly, yet she had been a guard. I did not know how to approach her. But then I told myself, after all, she is a human being and I went upstairs’.

Margarete was nervous but not afraid and she had come back as she felt she must. She traveled for a day from the Ruhr Valley, where she grew up and still lives. However, she did not know that she was the only SS Aufseherin or Female guard in Nazi concentration camps who had ever dared to disclose her identity or show her face.

The testimony of everyday German men and women who carried out Nazi horrors has almost never come to light. A few Nazi leaders wrote memoirs. Nazi leaders testified in their own postwar war crime trials. Historians have since unearthed diaries and letters. But the vast majority of low-level Nazi functionaries who perpetrated the daily dirty work of genocide took their stories with them to the grave. Few disclosed their pasts, most did not, not even to their own families.

A rare exception is Margarete Barthel, now 91 and housebound by arthritis. She felt trying to explain the circumstances of her becoming an SS guard. Today, the perverse paradox of her life is she feels guilt for all the murdered people but the time in Ravensbrück was also the most beautiful for her.

Margarete has told her story half a dozen times since coming forward. She was always eager to talk to researchers, camp historians and journalists. But later the questions got more pointed. Why had she done it and why did she feel compelled to talk about it half a century later? Margarete’s answer is that she wants to set the records straight and she believed herself to be, not one of the ‘criminal blond beasts’ that the female SS personnel are seen as.

Margarete used to work as a lab assistant in a German chemical company on the western border. Her responsibility was to fill bombs for the Luftwaffe. It was August 1944 and Margarete was a fun-loving young woman at 21 with an education up to eighth grade. Like her best friend Leni, Margarete also signed up for a two-week “apprenticeship program” of the company outside Berlin.

Her father was a left leaning miner while her mother would place flowerpots with little swastika flags in their home. Margarete says that she came from a social democratic household who had nothing to do with the Nazis. Within days Margarete and her girlfriends Friedchen and Leni were heading towards east on a train through the carpet-bombed Ruhr Valley. The Allies had been bombing day and night.

Soon they have found out the true nature of their “apprenticeship”. The barbed wire and the surroundings clearly indicated that it was a concentration camp and they were “furious”. Entering the SS cafeteria they had seen the prisoners outside the window. “My God, it was awful” she said.

Ravensbrück concentration camp was completed in 1939 to imprison Hitler’s political enemies, other undesirable women like prostitutes and criminals, then Jews, Gypsies and resisters. They all toiled in the high walled, barbed-wired hellhole for the Nazi war machine and were exterminated through work. The camp also trained female SS guards. Like notorious Irma Grese, these SS guards went on to serve in death camps like Maidanek, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.

The demand for labor sky rocketed in 1943 and SS ordered defense contractors whose factories benefited from the slaves, like Margarete’s employer Ruhrchemie, to provide female workers to guard the imprisoned laborers. Margarete said that the three of them stayed together and supervised camp works like making wooden shoes, sewing military uniforms, growing vegetables, building landing strips and roads etc. Margarete was armed with a whistle and oversaw a crew in an electronic factory run by Siemens where parts for Nazi submarines and aircraft were made by the prisoners.

She and her girlfriends had little idea about the gruesome things at first. From 6 a. m. each morning she and other guards marched group of prisoners towards the front gate and to works. The guards returned with the prisoners and in the afternoon went out with the same or new crew. At first, Margarete was tearful and homesick but later got used to with the tedious routine.

Survivor accounts document that guards were brutal towards the prisoners. Some of the most sadistic guards kicked and beat the women prisoners and forced them to stand barefoot for hours in subfreezing weather and made German shepherd dogs to maul their legs. One survivor recalled deputy head overseer Dorothea Binz personally whipped prisoners who were sent to camp jail and made her eat mud-soaked bread like a dog. Binz was later executed for war crimes. Beatings were common practice by the guards to speed up production.

Prisoners also recall a few kind women who risked their own lives trying to make life a little easier for them. Margarete did not claim any heroism but she said that she had done her best to be kind. She echoed the common evasion offered by the most Germans of her generation in a German television interview in 1999 that they had no choice.

She said that she had just one goal of keeping her head down and staying out of trouble. This advice was given by her father when she visited home while escorting prisoners back to the Ruhr that autumn. He was furious to learn the nature of her work. Margarete said that she and her friends were afraid of the camp Kommandant’s order to stop crying or they would wind up in the camp as prisoners.

By February 1945, Margarete, Friedchen and Leni were assigned to one of their desired chalets which had rooms decorated with looted rugs, curtains and silk covered beds. In a videotaped interview with Ravensbrück historians in 2004, Margarete said that ‘They hauled in all the Jews from France. And they always brought their best things’. She added that she did not like the looted goods.

However, she admitted eagerly grasping the perks allowed by the SS superiors. Such as nightly outings for nearby cinema, dinner in town, flirting with the SS men and later with the Siemens engineers. She said that dancing was not allowed but they all had boyfriends. ‘The men were allowed to come over in the evening’ she said.

She was bold and reckless. Once she exploited her swollen leg to beg off work. When she was assigned to escort the prisoners to Ruhr in late 1944 she was afraid of being separated from her girl friends and being stuck with the tough guards. So she staged a hunger strike and faked a pregnancy and later was allowed to return to Ravensbrück. ‘It was my youth. We didn’t know the worst of what was going on. We felt free, the weather was heavenly and the landscape was beautiful’.

She felt sorry for the prisoners but she said to reporters in 1999 ‘You could turn off your brain, if you tried’. She shared happy moments with the prisoners. She had a lot of sympathy for them and vice versa, according to her statements. Prisoners shared their food with her, they roasted potatoes in the field with them and the prisoners lied to cover for her when she had to go to toilet.

In reality, the nine months Margarete Barthel worked at Ravensbrück concentration camp, more than 1,000 women were dying each month from the inhuman conditions. It was the most hideous in the camp’s history. Skeletal Jewish prisoners from eastern camps like Auschwitz arrived in waves due to approaching red army. Ravensbrück resorted to systematic murder of ‘excess’ prisoners who were unable to work.

Kommandant Fritz Suhren ordered to build a gas chamber and the barrack guards began selecting the injured and sick for transferring to the Uckermark death camp next door. As many as 6,000 were shot or gassed there. The execution began in February 1945. Margarete said that it was then that she began to understand what was actually going on. The guards saw the main gate open with the pavement wet. Margarete said that they had assumed from washing down the blood. ‘Leni sometimes said ‘Did you hear the last night shooting?’’ she said.

Later from their chalet they had seen flames shooting out of the chimney of the crematorium. She said “My friend at the office said they were burning files, but it was nauseating, sweetish smell. I said to Leni, ‘You know what, they are burning people there’. The evacuation order came on 27th April. The SS emptied out the stores of candy, vodka and champagne and the guards got drunk. Margaret and other guards helped themselves to Red Cross food packets intended for the prisoners.

Thousands of prisoners were forced to walk the death marches. SS chief Heinrich Himmler permitted thousands more prisoners to be bused to Sweden in an effort to receive favorable treatment from the approaching Allies. Margarete and her friend Friedchen escorted a column in trucks westward. On the way, they met a drunken Suhren at Neustadt-Glewe. He was later captured and executed for his war crimes. Shuren told them that Germany had been unable to avoid defeat and they should try to find their way back home.

Margarete and Friedchen then discarded all traces of SS and fled on foot. However, they kept the leather boots as those were priceless then. Margarete kept her boots till 1956. Margerete then returned to her company that ‘lied’ to her.

She married in 1949 and stopped working in order to raise her four children. Later she and her husband separated. She said that Friedchen had been drinking and taking pills and died within a decade. She met up with Leni occasionally, until, she too died in 1997.

In 1960s, the historians from outside Germany began to document precisely about the Nazi war crimes and Holocaust. Margarete then bought and read the first of those books such as- Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, the experiments etc. She said that there was so much in those books that they hadn’t known. And those were ‘too gruesome for words’. For example, the SS had dumped the ashes of murdered prisoners in the lake. Margarete said ‘I told Leni as we were horrified; Thank God we never swam there’.

In the 1999 TV interview she said “Even though I did not do anything, it still burdens me. The fact that I was there at all, that without trying to do anything I stood there and watched.”

A younger and less forgiving generation of journalists and historians began to expose the cracks in the story told by Margarete. Simon Erpel, 50, expert of Ravensbrück’s final years and curator of the exhibit said that Margarete’s story was ‘self-serving nonsense’ and that there were no categorical ethical and moral differences between the drafted ones and the volunteers. Erpel said that like any other guards, Margarete had been a part of the daily horror of Ravensbrück.

Erpel has documented cases of Ravensbrück guards who refused to serve in the concentration camps. According to him, refusing was difficult but possible. Margarete’s long journey had changed her and in 1999 she also wished to have her ashes laid to rest at the camp as a kind of apology as the ashes of the murdered prisoner women were just thrown into the lake.

But for many, that apology can never be accepted. A survivor, Zophia Shulman, 83, was just 14 when she was deported as a Jew from Warsaw Ghetto to Ravensbrück camp. She too returned for the 60th anniversary ceremonies. She said that ‘None of them (the guards) shied away from participating, whether passively or actively’.

Video story: Documentary on Ravensbrück Nazi concentration camp

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE