In November, 1938, approximately 500 male prisoners were sent from the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp to begin construction of Ravensbruck. Unlike other concentration camps being constructed, Ravensbruck was intended specifically for female prisoners.
The camp opened on May 15, 1939, with the transfer of 867 women from other camps. At the start, conditions were not bad. There were beds, with bed linen which was changed regularly. Clean uniforms were issued. Food was in adequate portions and quality. A Communist prisoner, Mararete Buber-Neumann, was brought to Ravensbruck after being in a Soviet Gulag. She compared the experience as follows:
I looked across the great square, and could not believe my eyes. It was surrounded by manicured lawns, covered by flower beds on which bloomed bright red flowers. A wide Street, which led to a large open area, was flanked by two rows of wooden barracks, on both sides stood rows of young trees and along the roadside ran straight flower beds as far as the eye could see. The square and the streets seemed freshly raked. To the left towards the watchtower, I saw a white wooden barrack and beside it a large cage, the size of a birdhouse the like you see at a zoo. Within it paraded peacocks (stolzierten) and on a climbing tree dangled monkeys and a parrot which always screamed the same word, "Mama". I wondered, "this is a concentration camp"?
In the following year, however, conditions began to deteriorate quickly as more and more prisoners were brought to the camps. During the following year, there were over 5,000 prisoners of which 47 died. By 1945, there were well over 10,000 prisoners, and they were dying at a rate of up to 80 per day.
The camp served additional functions as well. First, it was a training facility for over 4,000 female guards, 150 of whom were served at Ravensbruck at any time. They treated the prisoners brutally, many of them then being transferred on to other camps throughout the occupied lands.
In addition, the camp provided labor. The adjacent Siemens factory was producing rocket parts for the V-2 program. In addition, a factory was constructed for fixing leather goods and textiles. Other shops produced uniforms for prisoners, the SS and the Wehrmacht.
During the entire operation of the camp by the Germans, over 130,000 women would come through these gates. Of these, only 15,000 would survive to see liberation.
This was now the second concentration camp we had visited. Like Sachsenhausen, there was no cost to go in.
When we arrived, the wind had come up and it was cold. It was later in the day and the museum would be closing soon, although I saw no physical barriers that would keep people out, or in, once they were closed.
Most of the buildings in the main section are gone. All that remains are indentations in the heavy gravel that denote the placement of each of the barracks buildings. The workshops and some other buildings were, however, still in tact.
A fence separated us from over half of the camp. I learned that this was where most of the camp's industry took place, including the location of the Siemen's factory. We were quite disappointed that no access was permitted to that side, but we continued on exploring a tragic, but fascinating piece of world history.