Daughters remember their Mothers, Prisoners of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp


Seventy-five years after the end of the Second World War, only a few survivors are still alive. It is now their daughters, sons, grandsons and granddaughters who deal with the legacy of their parents and grandparents. Also, in the International Ravensbrück Committee (IRC), which was founded in 1965, former prisoners of the women’s concentration camp, to a large extent, have passed the relay baton of memories on to the second and third generations.

The exchange of generations is taking place at a time when Europe is confronted with newly ignited nationalism; new dividing lines and demarcation of borders are disturbing, and they make communication difficult. In contrast, the Ravensbrück International Committee and the Ravensbrück Memorial Museum want to focus on the common points in history, which include persecution in the era of Nazism, and to encourage dialogue between European nations. Approximately 120,000 women were imprisoned in Ravensbrück. According to Nazi ideology, there was no place in Europe for these women who were persecuted for racial and political reasons – so in Ravensbrück there was a “different Europe”. The process of European understanding is a response to the experiences of the Second World War. The committee, which still meets once a year in one of Europe’s cities, was honoured by the United Nations in 1987 as a “messenger of peace”.

Since it was founded, the survivors of Ravensbrück concentration camp, as well as their daughters, one son and their grandchildren, have been represented on the committee. The survivors, who are still actively represented on the committee today, were children deported to Ravensbrück with their mothers. The idea of a joint exhibition by the committee and the Memorial Museum site arose during the committee’s annual meeting in May 2019 in Gorizia, Italy. The exhibition shows large portraits of mothers, grandmothers and friends of today’s committee members from thirteen countries. The pictures of Rosa Kugelman and Anna Burger, who lost their lives while they were imprisoned, date from the time before they were arrested. The other portraits come from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Daughters, one son, grandchildren and friends comment on these photos.

Why photos of these women from after the war? Today’s young people got to know the survivors of the Nazi camps primarily as pleasant older people who told them about their experiences in schools and museums or at memorials. There are well-known photographs of the liberation of the camps, in which the prisoners are seen mostly looking gaunt and in striped clothing, with shaved heads. Women were deprived of their dignity in the camps. Above all, having their hair cut off was a great shock to all of them and was seen as a loss of womanhood. Photographs from concentration and extermination camps today show us the absolute lowest point in the history of civilisation. The fact that after the liberation the survivors were looking for a new beginning – mostly after they returned into a traditional surrounding that was not interested in their particular stories, or after emigrating to a foreign country – is not evident in any of the publicly known photographs.

In Eastern Europe, the Wehrmacht razed towns and villages to the ground. Those individuals who survived Ravensbrück returned to a ruined world. Imprisonment in the concentration camp initially represented a finished chapter of life that was hardly spoken about. The girls and women tried to leave their extreme experiences behind as fast as possible by starting a new normal life. Many of them got married. From this perspective, the portrait photographs that these women had taken a few years after the liberation can be seen as a sign of victory. We made it! Traces of the suffering we experienced can hardly be seen, we have reached a new era.

”I have been born again, I’m rising from the dead, leaving the misery behind me (…), I’m sleeping normally, eating bread, drinking water in great gulps and at night I have difficult dreams of Ravensbrück camp, which took my youth from me,” Hanna Nowakowska quotes her mother Janina, who returned to a ruined Warsaw. The photos tell us less about the nightmares and the problems of living in the post-war period. However, more about this can be found in the texts of these women’s children and grandchildren, which we present alongside the photographs in the accompanying brochures: after returning home many of their mothers and grandmothers led a life full of strenuous work and hardship. “Although she would have liked to have studied, she started work a week after returning home. She had to support her mother and younger sister,” writes Šárka Kadlecová about her Czech grandmother. “We had to start from scratch, we had nothing at all”, recalls Barbara Piotrowska, who was deported to Ravensbrück from Warsaw with her mother: “My mother worked and faced huge problems. Yet she created the conditions for me to study and start a family.” Some of the daughters also mention the emotional wounds their mothers suffered from, such as Vanda Straka Vrhovnik from Slovenia: as a child her mother seemed to her an “incredibly sad woman” who “only rarely laughed. (…). She was emotionally exhausted after all the suffering she had had to overcome.” And Natalia Timofeeva writes about Sofie Iwanowna Schkatula, who was born in the Crimea, that, like others, she had to hold back “her anger and hatred” through willpower and stifle it inside herself.

In addition to the memories of their suffering, for many survivors “Ravensbrück”, however, also meant something else: many of the women in the concentration camp, where people from more than 30 countries were imprisoned, met exceptional women, learned new ways of thinking and, above all, solidarity. Friendships were maintained across borders. And they were the foundations on which the International Ravensbrück Committee was built. A “Friendly Europe” came naturally to these women. Many of them were politically involved in the post-war period, fighting for social justice and women’s rights. “Someone who doesn’t think like you may be better than you,” Margarita Catalá quotes her Spanish mother, Neus Catalá Palleja. And Anne Cordier notes that in raising her children her French mother “never encouraged them to hate the Germans.”

The exhibition features portraits of former prisoners in Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp from the Czech Republic, Norway, Italy, Hungary, France, Spain, Austria, Germany, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, the Netherlands and Slovenia. That is how the countries are named today. In fact, these countries did not necessarily exist in this form during the long 20th century, and it was therefore not always easy to name the nationality of the women. To give two examples: Rosa Kugelman was born in 1904 in Smarhon near Vilnius, which at that time belonged to Russia, from 1918 to the Soviet Union, from 1921 to Poland, after the end of the Second World War it again belonged to the Soviet Union and since 1991 it has belonged to Belarus. Pavla Cedilnik was born in 1925 in Gameljne near Ljubljana. At that time this village belonged to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which in 1945 became a People’s Republic. Since 1991 it has been part of Slovenia. We therefore decided to include only the place of birth alongside the names of the people depicted. The current names of the countries are attached to the names of the authors of the texts. The exhibition will open on Sunday, 19 April 2020 in the Ravensbrück Memorial Museum on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of this women’s concentration camp. It is designed as a touring exhibition and will be shown in different European cities from autumn 2020. This exhibition will serve as a forum for various educational and discussion formats on the themes of national socialist persecution and a common Europe.

We sincerely thank all the members of the International Ravensbrück Committee for providing the photographs of their mothers, grandmothers and friends, as well as for their written commentaries accompanying the photographs. We would like to thank the international team responsible for the exhibition – Kateřina Kočková, Šárka Kadlecová and Stefan Osciatka from Prague, Jeanine Bochat from Bad Schandau and Rüdiger Hahn and Britta Pawelke from the Ravensbrück Memorial for their excellent work on the exhibition. We thank the Interlingua office in Prague for excellent translations of this project into six languages. Last but not least, we thank the Culture and Media Commissioner of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Federal State of Brandenburg for the generous financial support of this exhibition.

Dr. Insa Eschebach                     
Director of the Ravensbrück Memorial Museum | Brandenburgische Memorial Foundation  

Ambra Laurenzi
President International Ravensbrück Committee