Experimental operations at Ravensbrück concentration camp

Operacje doświadczalne w obozie koncentracyjnym Ravensbrück.

Author

Wanda Półtawska, MD, born 1921, psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry, Academy of Medicine in Kraków (em.). Director of Institute of Family Theology, Pontifical Academy of Theology, Kraków. Former prisoner of the Ravensbrück concentration camp No. 7709.

Ravensbrück concentration camp, which the German authorities used to call a Muster-Lager (a model concentration camp), was established in 1938. In the autumn of that year five hundred inmates of Sachsenhausen near Oranienburg were transported to the site on Himmler’s orders to build a concentration camp for women. That was the order, it was to be a women’s concentration camp.

By the spring of 1939 14 barracks had been up, waiting for the women prisoners to arrive. The first transport, numbering 867 inmates, came in the spring of that year, followed by a continuous influx of new transports, which meant that the camp had to be extended. There are no exact figures, but on the basis of extant documents it has been estimated that a total of about 92 thousand women passed through Ravensbrück, and on the day it was liberated there were about 40 thousand still in the camp.

The first transport of Polish women arrived on 29 September 1939. A total of 42 thousand Polish women were held in Ravensbrück.

As in other concentration camps, at Ravensbrück too prisoners had different-coloured triangular badges on their clothing, depending on the grounds for their arrest, with their prison number below the badge. Political prisoners had a red triangle, colloquially called a winkiel [a Polish loan of the German word Winkel, “angle,” for “triangle”]. A red triangle with the initial P on it meant that in that huge crowd of women you could at least find someone who spoke your language, sometimes she was more than just a compatriot.

As a rule veteran häftlings (prisoners) tended to show concern and look after new arrivals, and that’s when the red triangle with the P initial came in handy for the purpose of identification.

Numerous communities came into being in this singular place referred to as Muster-Lager Ravensbrück.

On the face of it all the women in Ravensbrück shared the same predicament, but sometimes there were considerable differences in the details. We don’t know what determined a particular individual’s ascription to a particular group; sometimes it was pure chance, standing in the same column, your prison number being the next one up from someone else’s in the group, or someone you knew inviting you to join her group. Some groups were made up of women who arrived on the same transport; other groups consisted of women who knew each other earlier, when they were held in the same prison; there were groups working in the same place, or living in the same block.

The policy followed by the camp’s authorities on groups was always the same – to do their utmost to split up these communities which sprang up in the camp, because they could organise and were dangerous. Groups were against the interest of the Third Reich and helped individual inmates to survive. So groups had to go.

But despite all these efforts to disband groups of whatever kind, there was one, special group set up in the camp. It could be called a strange group, if “strange” were the right word for it. It was set up by the Germans themselves, and as time went on it grew more integrated, suppler, and committed to one another. It was known by the whole camp, all of its authorities, and is still referred to today [1963] in the Polish press and by ZBoWiD, the Polish war veterans’ association, as die Kaninchen, “rabbits,” or – to use the common English expression, “the guinea pigs.”

Die Kaninchen were women prisoners of Ravensbrück who were used as human guinea pigs for experimental surgical operations.

What was the origin of this group, whom at times of brawls and rebellion the female wardens used to call das Piratenvolk (the pirates)?

There was a time when the girls whose prison number started in the 7000’s were regarded as doomed. From the very outset the transport labelled No. 7000 was treated in a special way, and had the word Sondertransport (special transport) added to its files in the camp’s administrative records. As soon as it arrived in the camp and came to a halt at the precinct called the Baden (the baths), the Polish women who worked in the Schreibstube (clerks’ office) said that strange word Sondertransport in our ear. We didn’t know at the time what it meant. Later we learned what it stood for. It turned out that the Sondertransport had a Gestapo death sentence hanging over it, to be carried out at Ravensbrück.

We felt the consequences of this pretty soon. No-one brought in on this transport was let out beyond the camp enclosure. All of us had to be available and on call all the time. Every so often individual women or groups of up to twenty girls would be taken away and shot. So we learned very soon what the word Sonder (“Special”) meant. But it wasn’t the death sentence hanging over us, nor the fact that it was being carried out that turned our transport into a well-knit social group. There were other things which proved crucial. The Sondertransport arrived in September 1941. Nearly a year later, on 27 July 1942, the whole transport (along with part of another transport from Lublin and Warsaw) was ordered to come up nach vorne (to the front). The Sondertransport had come from the jail in Lublin Castle and the Pawiak prison in Warsaw.

The women called up had to assemble in the precinct next to the offices, where various “ceremonies” were held. This time it was a medical examination, an odd examination, as they only looked at our arms and legs, and took down our age.

It seems that an individual’s age was the main factor which decided what happened to her next.

That was Act One – the introduction to the criminal medical experiments carried out at Ravensbrück.

The first group to be operated were the youngest girls, then those up to 25, and when they ran out the age limit was raised.

Of course at the time of that first examination no-one knew at all what it was all for. As always happens in such cases, prisoners’ speculations ran from the most pessimistic to the casually optimistic. But no-one hit on the truth. Some feared we would be executed, others were happy that we would be put on a transport for “freedom.” The atmosphere of expectation lasted a few days.

On 30 July 1942 six aged 18 to 25 out of all the women who had been examined were summoned and sent to the camp hospital. This time it was by sheer random choice. The six had been last to be examined on 27 July.

In the hospital they were given a bath and put in white beds. The German bath attendant told them in a whisper that they would be operated, but no-one believed her. They were sure it was a new type of execution.

After a time they were given an injection and a few hours later sent back to our block.

The situation became even more mysterious. Later it turned out that the surgeon who had been commissioned didn’t arrive for some reason. But the delay started a new period of waiting, for what we didn’t know, and a new wave of speculations.

Two days later (1 August 1942), the same six women were again summoned to the hospital, and this time they were operated.

Then it continued. From 1 August 1942 to 16 August 1943 a total of 74 Polish female prisoners and an unspecified number of women prisoners of other nationalities were operated. Some said it was 5 other women, while according to others it was 4 mentally ill women (3 Germans, 1 Czech, and 1 Yugoslav). All the Polish women selected were from the Sondertransport.

The operations carried out on them were of various kinds. At first it seemed that the women who were being operated were those who had been sentenced to death, and the operation was a sort of surrogate sentence. Nobody confirmed this officially, but there was an incident of a girl of 18 (Rozalia Gutek), being sent to be executed a few days after she had been operated. The guard who came to collect her looked at her legs, and left her in the hospital. She wasn’t sent to the firing squad. She was shot later. But at the time it looked as if her death sentence was waived because she had been operated. That’s probably why no-one put up any resistance during her operation. The women went to be operated on with the same determination with which they went to their executions, which were being carried out on other Sondertransport women at the same time.

However, a few fatalities occurred in outcome of the operations; five women died after they had been operated. Nonetheless, it still seemed that if you were operated you might die, but if you were sent to be executed you would definitely die. Of course, no-one said this out aloud. Occasionally someone said it on the quiet, especially women from other transports, who were not directly involved.

The number of women who had been operated steadily grew. They stayed in the hospital from a few weeks to a few months; after their operation they returned to their block with their legs mutilated, and joined a new social group, die Kaninchen (the guinea pigs). There were more and more women in the group, and contrary to the normal procedures followed by the camp’s authorities, no attempt was made to split it up, quite the opposite happened – it was kept together in a separate block away from other blocks, and no-one could leave it. The Germans were evidently trying to isolate the group off from the rest of the camp and from the civilians the groups who worked beyond the camp sometimes met. But thanks to this the group started to develop the features of an organised community. Perhaps the fact that most of them were young women contributed to this, too, which resulted in them setting up a school in which they could continue their education. Another factor uniting them was that they were all political prisoners. Finally all of them grew more and more resolute. All the women in the group became braver and braver, and sometimes their boldness verged on “black humour.”


Identification of the Dead. Marian Kołodziej

The guinea pigs were treated differently by other prisoners too, the overwhelming majority of whom took a very caring attitude to the youngest and most mutilated inmates. One of the Polish block functionaries managed to obtain bedsheets for the girls who had been operated. It was a long time since other blocks had had any sheets. These sheets lasted to the end of the camp. The German senior staff, who were transferred fairly frequently and usually spent a shorter spell in the camp than veteran prisoners, thought that the sheets were a special privilege granted by the Lagerkommandant. Another Sondertransport girl told a not so bright German woman working in the Kammer (stockroom) that those who had been operated were supposed to have leather shoes for their sick legs. And we got shoes. Yet another colleague procured quilts. The cooks regularly pinched one of the cauldrons of the SS-men’s soup for the guinea pigs. It would be no exaggeration to say that the whole camp tried to keep the guinea pigs alive.

However, at one point six guinea pigs were shot, and that changed the psychological situation. It turned out that you could be an invalid due to an operation and still be shot afterwards. Our malicious adversaries stopped saying it was worthwhile having an operation.

The group with prison numbers in the seven thousands gradually grew bolder and bolder, and eventually our boldness broke out in open rebellion.

Some of the operations were repetitive – the same kind of surgery, particularly bone surgery, was done a number of times on the same person.

Zofia S. was the first to refuse. She had been operated on before, and on 13 March 1943 she was called up again. She said, “No, I won’t go.” When told to see the commandant she said the same to him, “I won’t go, I’ve been operated on twice already, I know what it means.” She was followed by Zofia M., who refused as well; while another Zofia S., who was waiting in the hospital for her turn, jumped out of the window and ran back to the block. Next day another five were called, and the rest sent a petition to “Herr Lagerkommandant.” Halina C. wrote the petition, which started with the question, “Do you know that operations are being conducted in the camp contrary to all human rights whatsoever? These operations are being carried out on young, healthy women, turning them into invalids and bringing a threat to their lives. They are being done against their wishes.” Almost all of those who had been operated signed the protest letter. Of course the protest had more of a psychological effect than a practical significance, but it made the group of dejected women feel that their humanity had been restored. All of them – a procession of cripples with bandages on their legs, and some on crutches – went to the Lagerkommandant’s office to deliver the petition. There were about 50 women in the block who had been operated on, and some still in the hospital. They marched through the camp. Herr Lagerkommandant did not feel like coming out to them, he just sent an office worker, who told them that they weren’t having any operations at all, and that their complaints were just hysterical old wives’ tales, because they had only been called up to have their temperatures taken. She didn’t sound too sure of herself, telling them it was all old wives’ tales and looking at fifty bandaged-up legs. The guinea pigs took her up on this. If it was a question of taking their temperatures, it was all the same which prisoners were called up for it. They didn’t need to come from our block. The commandant’s office agreed. Still on the same day the camp’s errand girl was ordered by the commandant to put up a notice in all the blocks that volunteers were wanted to report three times a day to have their temperatures taken. Of course no-one volunteered.

The five told to report to the hospital were saved, they were not operated on. Of course we don’t know how much of an effect our petition had on the developments. For the time being it seemed that did have an effect and the group was reinvigorated yet again, especially as there were none of the usual consequences after the protest. No-one was shot, and no-one was put in the bunker. The only thing that happened was that our Bettkarten (“bed cards,” viz. permits allowing them to stay in bed) were withdrawn and the staff were instructed to send us out to work. However, after some time this recommendation was withdrawn as well, when some of the women who had been operated were sent to work outside the camp and the bandages on their legs caused a sensation. They started telling people what was going on in the camp.

Up to 15 August it seemed to have come to an end. No new women were operated on. The ones that had been operated left the hospital. Suddenly on 15 August 1943 the Polish women working in the hospital brought us news that an operating theatre and a room with six beds had been made ready. In the afternoon the Lagerpolizei (camp police) arrived with a list of ten women who were ordered to report to the hospital. Helena P., Władysława K., Halina P., Joanna S., Stefania S., Pelagia M., Bogna B., Urszula K., Zofia K., and Zofia K. refused. The policewoman left, only to return a moment later with a whole gang of police who threw all the residents out of the block. The whole camp was put under a Blocksperre order (confinement in the blocks). All the women vanished from the camp street, except for our block. Oberaufseherin (Senior Wardeness) Binz appeared on the scene. The ten who had been told to report were at the front. There was a hush in the camp, and in front of every Polish block there was a policewoman. Binz said they were not going to operated, only sent to work, and told them to go up nach vorne (to the front) to the Lagerkommandant’s office. The ones told to report said they’d go to the commandant’s office, but not to the hospital. They were surrounded by police and marched off nach vorne.

The rest of our block stood there in silence. Suddenly dogs started barking and we saw our ten girls running like mad for the block. Like on a parade ground we split lines, the ten rushed in, and without a word all the rows closed up again. It all happened in dead silence. All that the policewomen emerging round the corner and chasing them could see was a set of rows standing in straight lines. The names were called, but none of them came forward. Binz appeared again and lectured us what a good time Polish women were having in the camp, ordering the ten to come out. Finally they were pulled out by policewomen who had served long enough to recognise them. They were taken to the bunker.

Our block was locked up for three days with no food, water, or fresh air (the window shutters were closed up) in retaliation for the Meuterei (mutiny). During this time five of the ten put in the bunker were operated just as they were, in their dirty clothes, with no nurses attending, and not in an operating theatre but in the bunker, which was a damp, dirty dungeon with a concrete floor.

Those were the last operations in the camp, done forcibly with SS-men holding down the women prisoners, who had their mouths gagged. When Joanna woke up after the anaesthetic wore off she kept saying the last thing that had come to her mind: “But my legs are absolutely filthy.” After that there were no more operations.

From the medical point of view it would be hard to find a reason for these pseudo-medical experiments. It would even be hard to find a general principle behind them. At any rate the operations could be put into two groups, the septic ones, and the clean (aseptic) ones. The clean operations could be further sub-divided into bone operations and those which were performed on the soft tissues.

All the surgery was done on the lower limbs, most of them on the crura (shanks), and sometimes on the thighs as well. One of the women had an abdominal cut as well as incisions on the legs, but the reason for the abdominal incision could not be established.

Of the 74 women who were operated on, 16 had “clean” surgery. The rest had septic surgery, and one woman, Maria C., had bone surgery (she had a bone broken) despite having had an septic operation performed on her earlier.

Evipan was used as an anaesthetic, prolonged with ether for bone operations which lasted longer. The operations were performed by assistant surgeons from Hohenlychen hospital supervised by Professor Gebhardt, first by Dr Fischer and later by others as well. The camp’s SS doctors, Dr Herta Oberheuser, Dr Rolf Rosenthal, and Dr Schiedlausky, applied the anaesthetics.

Most of the septic operations involved the intromission of materials carrying infections into the soft tissues of the subjects’ shanks, but various techniques were used. At first the contaminating material was put into the cut the surgeon made on the subject’s leg, which was not stitched up but just covered with a plaster cast removed after a few days. As a rule the cut was made along the fibula. Proliferative changes were observed in the X-rays of all the women who had this done to them, showing that osteomyelitis (bone inflammation) had occurred in their fibulae.

A different procedure was followed in another group. The infection was injected into their soft tissue, which was cut open only when inflammation ensued. A cut was made at the place where the infiltrate was collecting, along the fibula, which was generally where these surgeries were done. Four of the women in this group did not have the inflammation cut open at all, but received intensive treatment (and they were the only ones subjected to experimental surgery to have treatment). With these four the infiltrate vanished without recourse to surgery. In general the septic operations resulted in a large amount of infiltrate collecting, attended by a high temperature. Some of the victims ran a fever of over 39.9oC. Five died. On the basis of the symptoms observed in them we may suspect that they were infected with Clostridium tetani (the bacterium causing tetanus) or gas gangrene. Other operations suggested that their victims had been infected with bacteria causing pyaemic abscesses, most probably staphylococcus or streptococcus. Survivors from this group developed the most prominent evidence of mutilation, because the inflammation brought about secondary damage to parts of their body next to the wound where the infection was applied, in other words not only their soft tissue but also the adjoining bones were attacked. Inflammation also caused a considerable amount of skin damage, and the inflammation which occurred in the bone resulted in the occurrence of fistulae and wound dehiscence (the wounds opening up) even several months after the surgery. On average the wounds took from a few months to over ten months to heal, but in a few cases it was even a couple of years. There is a report of a victim’s wound rupturing after well over a decade. In addition many subjects sustained damage to the peripheral nervous system, usually the peroneal nerve, which in turn left them with impaired mobility, partly or even completely inhibiting movement of the ankle joint.

I shall discuss two cases from this group.

Case 1. W.W.; operated on 1 Aug. 1942 under intravenous anaesthesia. On waking up she found that her left leg was in a plaster cast marked “3 TK”. On the next day she got an inflammation and her foot and inguinal lymph nodes were swollen. She ran a fever of 40oC which lasted for the whole day. After three days the plaster was removed, and she had the sensation of “something being taken out of her wound” (patients had their heads covered up when their wounds were being dressed). The wound exuded pus for four months. An examination carried out by Professor Michejda at the Gdańsk Clinic in 1946 showed that she had an 8 cm scar with no sign of stitches, unsettled at bone level. Slightly impaired mobility of the ankle joint (particularly for lateral movement).

X ray - Periosteal thickening observed on the middle and lower fibula, with small amounts of calcification on the soft tissue. Ostitis fibulae dex. peracta.

Case 2. Maria K.; operated on 7 Oct. 1942 under intravenous anaesthesia. She had cuts made in her right shank. After the operation a plaster dressing was applied, which was removed after 6 days. There was a very large outflow of exudate. Her leg was put in a brace. Her wounds needed over a year and a half to heal. There are still [1963] areas on the patient’s lower leg where her scars rupture despite treatment.

Present condition [1963] Scar 41 cm long and 8 cm wide, starting slightly above the top of the fibula and continuing downwards along the axis of the shank, and extending over almost the whole surface of the lower leg. The scar is forked at the top. A large amount of frontal and lateral muscles missing around the lower part of the scar; here the scar is directly on top of the tibia and fibula. The scar is fully fixed with respect to the bones. In the lower axis a 2mm-diameter loss of tissue is observed at a height of four fingers above the outer malleolus. Inhibited movement of the ankle joint, the patient is unable to lift her foot up into the upright position. No pulse observed in the dorsal artery of the foot; a pulse may be observed on the posterior femoral artery. An 8 cm scar healed per primam observed on the inside shank, and a similar healed scar on the dorsal part of the foot (remedial operations, Figs. 1 and 2.)


[Fig. 1. M.K., one of the victims of the Ravensbrück “operations.” She has extensive scars on her right leg, with damage to the soft tissue and paralysis of the peroneal nerve (palsy, Zenker’s paralysis). ]


[Fig. 2. The same victim, back view of the legs]

X ray: a considerable loss of bone tissue immediately over the base of the tibia, surrounded with a dense layer of bone tissue. Irregular posterior and lateral outline of the shin. Right fibula considerably widened in its middle part, with an indistinct boundary in the coronal section. Layer-like arrangement of osteoid protruberances visible in the anterior-posterior section. Fig. 3.


[Fig. 3. The same victim. X ray of the right shank, loss of bone tissue in the lower part of the tibia; proliferative changes proliferative periostitis.]

Neurology: paresis due to traumatic muscle loss; paralysis of the fibular nerve.

Both cases developed in the same way, but led to different consequences, which should be considered in the light of a particularly significant circumstance impacting on the assessment of the two surgeries. In the first case the surgery was performed on the first day and in the first group [of operations].The subjects in the first group had their dressings changed every day by an SS doctor who came in every day to do this. Case 2  was operated later, when the outcome of the surgeries was distinctly aggravated by the results of bad nursing. A very large amount of exudate was issuing from the subject’s wound, which was in a plaster cast not changed for a week. New dressings were applied far less frequently [than in Case 1]. Significantly, at the later stage [of the experiments] the SS doctors who performed the surgeries were not interested at all in the way the incisions healed, they just conducted the operations and never saw their victims again. Hence there was extensive secondary damage of the soft tissue. The first set of operations appear to have been carried out with greater care; the women in the first group have small scars and almost all of the mobility of their legs has been preserved. The aseptic operations may be sub-divided into those where the aim was to collect bone material (Knochenspan, viz. bone grafts), and those which appear to have been done for the fun of the experiment as such, with no practical purpose at all. Bone surgeries were repeated several times. Barbara P. was a typical case. She was the youngest prisoner in the Sondertransport, aged 16 at the time of her arrest. She was operated on 2 October 1942. Her operation should be classified in the group of bone surgeries done for the purpose of collecting material.

Two incisions were made under intravenous anaesthesia on the right and left shank. After the operation plaster cast dressings were put on both legs. The plaster was not removed even though the victim complained of pain and her legs were very swollen. After a fortnight the plaster on the left leg was removed, but only to conduct another surgery under intravenous anaesthesia, with a new incision on the shank above the earlier cuts. The patient again had a plaster cast put on the wounds. She was running a very high fever, but her dressings were not changed. Two months after the first operation the plaster was removed from both of her legs, the stitches were taken out, and her wounds were dressed with adhesive bandages. A fortnight later a third operation was performed, involving the opening up of the lower incision on the patient’s right shank. Again a plaster cast was put on up to the knee. Again the victim developed a fever which lasted for about a fortnight. A month after this operation the plaster was removed and new dressings were applied every few days. On 28 January 1943 a fourth operation was carried out, this time the lower wound on her left shank was opened. Another plaster cast was applied on this limb. However, after two days it had to be removed because of a haemorrhage. For a month the patient was in very great pain and running a fever, and her leg was swollen and exuding a large amount of pus. On 15 March 1943, when the left limb was not yet fully healed, the fifth (and last) operation was carried out, in which the upper incision on the right shank was opened up. This wound healed with no further complications, but the wound on the left shank took another two months (to May 1943) to heal. The victim did not recover her ability to walk until about nine months after the first operation.

Present condition [1963]: two scars confirmed on the medial side of the patient’s right shank, the upper one in the top half, and the lower one in the bottom half of her right shank. The upper scar is bow-shaped and 15 cm long. At its base it is slightly mobile. Below this scar there is a tactile protruberance on the tibia. The lower scar, which is 12 cm long, looks as if it healed per secundam. The tibia below this scar is uneven; the veins on the inside foot are dilated, and on the skin there are numerous small blue spots which do not disappear when pressure is applied.

There are also two scars on the medial part of the surface of the left shank. They run along the tibia and nearly join each other. They have a total length of 23 cm, and the stitch marks on them are still visible. In the top part they look as if they healed per primam, but in the lower part they evidently healed per secundam. The lower part is immobile and fully attached to the bone, in which there is a tactile depression.

The internal examination carried out by Professor Semerau-Siemianowski confirmed that the patient was suffering from aortic insufficiency of the semilunar valves and (functional?) mitral regurgitation. Along with this cardiac defect she also had an enlarged heart, in particular left ventricular hypertrophy. The condition went back to a bout of rheumatoid arthritis she suffered in 1939. The criminal medical experiments carried out on her probably aggravated the condition.

X ray: both the patient’s tibiae are deformed; they have irregular edges and a bulge on the coronal layer, particularly on the medial and dorsal side. Slight bone rarefaction at the top end of the right tibia. Fig. 4.


[Fig. 4. B.P. X ray of both shanks. Proliferative periostitis following inflammation of the left tibia]

This was to be an aseptic bone surgery, but its course indicates that an infection occurred. Today it is hard to tell whether this was a deliberate measure or unintended.

This was a particularly drastic case, because shortly after Professor Michejda’s expertise the patient died of circulatory failure, and her death was undoubtedly connected with the five operations carried out on her. She was anaesthetised five times, and on all five occasions she ran a high temperature for a long time, which led to cardiac enlargement in addition to the cardiac disorder she was already suffering from. None of the five operations were preceded by an internal examination.

The following is another example of the aseptic bone surgeries (the expertise is by Professor Michejda):

Janina M., surgery conducted on 3 December 1942; both legs were put into plaster casts and immobilised. Two months later a second operation was done (on 10 February 1943). Her legs were immobilised in plaster casts for three months.

Present condition [1963]: a scar on the medial part of the dorsal side of both the left and right shank; each 21 cm in length, with stitch marks still visible. A tactile bulge on the bone under the scar on the left limb.

X ray: A very irregular outline of the medial part of the tibia in both legs. Backward displacement of the shadow of the coronal section on the posterior part of the right tibia. This point marks the start of a line of condensed bone tissue reminiscent of a broken bone which has healed. On the front part of the tibia there is a small fissure running in the same direction. A prominently bulging coronal section in the medial part. An analogous deformation on the back edge of the tibia, with a chip at the top and bottom end of the tibia, set at an obtuse angle with respect to the tibia.

This victim had her bone broken in addition to having a bone sample removed.


[[Fig. 5. J. D. Condition following septic surgery]

I could go on citing dozens of other cases. A full record of them has been compiled by Professor Michejda and published in Volume II (1947) of the bulletin (Biuletyn) published by the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland. These case histories have also been published by other medical commissions in connection with proceedings for compensation claims. The data could certainly be examined and studied from various aspects, but this cannot be done within the limits of this paper, the purpose of which is to give readers a general idea of the nature of this experimental surgery, which is not very widely known.

For a certain period during their time in Ravensbrück the women who were operated on made up a well-knit group, distinct from the rest of the inmates, and they stayed that way to the end of the concentration camp.

From August 1943 there were no more operations. Those who survived them and were not shot were later put in the NN-Leute (Nacht und Nebel Leute, viz. “Cloak-and-Dagger People’s”) block. The residents of these premises, Block 32, were destined for elimination. Block 32 was situated at the end of the camp and could be accessed only through one entrance, which had its advantages and disadvantages. Our “sentries” always on the lookout in the loft warned us in advance when the SS was approaching. We were living in this block when the decision to “remove the evidence” was issued. In February 1945, on the eve of liberation, the guinea pigs (now nicknamed “royals”) were about to have the death sentence long since passed on them actually carried out.

As always, our Polish friends in the clerks’ office warned us a day in advance, and the entire camp stood up in defence of the “royal” guinea pigs. Representatives of the various blocks and nationalities gave us a free hand, telling us to do whatever we liked and escape, but not to give in. Escaping was out of the question, because of the wall and high-voltage fence, and our crippled legs. But we hid away. For several weeks until the end of the War the women prisoners made a variety of efforts to save the guinea pigs. Some (a Polish woman and a Norwegian) offered to change documents with the youngest guinea pigs and go to their deaths instead of them; others simply hid us away. The most injured guinea pigs spent several days buried [in dug-outs] near the block; we dispatched others on transports bound for other camps.

Of course this was only possible because it was 1945, and countless crowds of female inmates from Auschwitz had been evacuated to Ravensbrück. The Auschwitz women passed on the prison numbers of those who had died during the journey, and since Auschwitz inmates had their numbers tattooed on them but Ravensbrück prisoners did not, we could write these numbers on with ink. At any rate the guinea pigs won; they were not found before the War came to an end.

They returned home.

There are now [1963] about 50 in Poland, and several in other countries.

What was the purpose of the criminal surgery perpetrated on them, if any? The German doctors must certainly have had a plan, but whatever it was, it could not justify the atrocity committed against us.

I have deliberately refrained from describing what the victims went through emotionally in connection with the surgery done on them; neither have I given an account of the living conditions in the camp. Polish readers know well enough what the term “German concentration camp” means, and I don’t think it’s necessary to say anything more other than just that Ravensbrück was a German concentration camp.

The whole affair has its medical, sociological, and psychological or perhaps even psychiatric aspects. On the basis of the follow-up medical records we know that the examinations now being carried out on other survivors are giving slightly different results than those conducted on this group. Perhaps the guinea pigs reacted in a somewhat different way to their confinement, due to the different circumstances they were held in. It would be interesting to learn of psychiatrists finding that the guinea pigs were now suffering from neuroses, while observing certain differences with respect to what other researchers were reporting for other survivors. While in general medical experts have been observing that young survivors found it hard to adjust to life on their return home, the youngest women in this group went home in a state of mental alertness, as evidenced by the fact that they all found jobs (all of them finished secondary school, and ten graduated from university or college, five in medicine). This may suggest a psychological differentiation, conditioned by a different type of tension, which could well have helped to integrate their personalities.

But again that lies beyond the scope of this paper, which I have based on my own experience and the accounts in:

1. Dr Zofia Mączka. 1946. “Operacje doświadczalne przeprowadzone w obozie koncentracyjnym w Ravensbrück.” Polski Tygodnik Lekarski 1074.
2. Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce, Vol. II (1947).
3. Die Frauen von Ravensbrück, published by Kongess Verlag, 1960.

Translated from original article: Półtawska W.: Operacje doświadczalne w obozie koncentracyjnym Ravensbrück. Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1963.

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