The general living conditions in the KZ camp were inhumane.
The daily routines and work assignments organized stringently by the SS as well as the generally bad basic subsistence, meant that for most prisoners it was a daily fight for survival.
The chances of survival often depended on the type of work assignment given and the overall time spent in the camp.
Compared to the beginning, conditions worsened significantly again after 1943, which was caused by a much more severe overcrowding of the camps towards the end of the war. While there were approximately 3,000 prisoners incarcerated in 1940, the number had risen to ten times as many in 1945. In the last 4 months of the war, more prisoners died in the camp than in all previous years together. The day would start at 3.30am for the women. After they’d been given an hour to wash, they often had to stand to attention for hours in all kinds of weather.
Due to the overcrowding, inmates battled daily for rations of food or places to wash or go to the latrines.
The bread rations were reduced to 200g per person from 1944, and in the winter of 1944/45, meals consisted of only 100g of bread and a thin soup made from vegetable leftovers for lunch.
Apart from the lack of food there was also not enough clothes for the women in the KZs. They were often given insufficient or torn clothing, and from 1943 shoes were only given out in the winter. This meant that prisoners had to walk barefoot to their work assignments across the hot and sharp-edged slag on the grounds within the camp. Having got through a daily roll call that often lasted hours, the women were then put into work details where they had to do heavy physical labour, often under the open sky. Mostly, they were made to walk to their assigned place of work. During the lunch breaks they were forced to walk back to the main camp, where there was often scant time to have the watery soup. The workdays were 8-12 hours long, and they had to stand to attention at the end again.
On the marches to their workplaces, the prisoners were watched by female guards and dog handlers. The slightest step out of line often led to the harshest punishments from the guards.
There were different areas of work which the prisoners were assigned.
For one, there were the production facilities run by external companies, like that of Siemens, and also several other external camps.
There was also work to be done for the KZ itself which was divided into various sections, in which prisoners mostly had their fixed places.
- Housekeeping work (latrine duty, kitchen tasks)
- Agricultural and gardening work
- Transport and cargo work
- Repair work (furniture etc. for the entire camp)
- Forced work for members of the SS (maids for the officers, kitchen duties)
- Contingency work (prisoners were assigned work according to demand)
- Building works (hardest tasks included roadworks, camp extensions, etc.)
Social relations between prisoners
Owing to the catastrophic conditions of their imprisonment and the strongly differing political, religious and cultural backgrounds of every individual inmate, there were grievous conflicts between them. But friendship and even love existed too and this must have certainly helped many prisoners in getting through the ordeal.
As described by Yvonne Useldinger on 8 March 1945 about the situation between inmates:
„Disgust – hate, and alongside it – respect and sympathy, they are the eternal companions in this bunched-up group of humans.“
Especially when it came to scarce resources such as food or clothing, there were sometimes severe conflicts. The potential for these conflicts was purposefully fueled by the SS, as individual groups in the KZ were given certain privileges.
In contrast to this, there are numerous descriptions and personal accounts of how friendships between individual prisoners or even forming so-called “camp families”, played a decisive part in getting through the time in the concentration camps. Within their little groups, the inmates tried to help one another with small necessities and – as much as possible – avoid the victimisation through the SS.
Many prisoners also reported that thoughts of their families helped them cope with this horror.
Sonja Prins wrote this poem while in a KZ in 1943:
“To our children
We will find their faces again,
will caress their soft cheeks and
answer their many solemn and heady questions.
We know that they are waiting.
This lets us persevere
and bear the heavy yoke of slaves.”
Apart from these human relations to help them get through, there was also their religion for many prisoners. There were Christians, Jews and Muslims in the camps who individually or separately, held services, bible classes or devotions to offer comfort and hope.
As these religious activities in the camps were prohibited by the SS, the inmates were evidently active in secret to help themselves. This included for example, classes for younger inmates in which languages and political topics were taught in the barracks in the evenings.
Other forms of resistance could also be found in the KZ Ravensbruck such as sabotaging parts of production. Prisoners produced faulty clothing or destroyed components and machines in production. These actions demanded incredible courage, and when uncovered would often lead to the harshest of punishments and even death.