Book Recommendation: If This is a Woman, by Sarah Helm

The Author

Sarah Helm is a British author who wrote a book on Vera Atkins (who worked for Britain’s secret service in and after World War II), and in the process stumbled across references to a Nazi concentration camp for women, called Ravensbruck. She writes incredibly detailed, well-researched non-fiction which includes a plethora of historical sources and interviews with survivors. Her subject matter certainly isn’t light and fluffy, but it’s definitely fascinating.

The Book

If This is a Woman: Inside Ravensbruck, Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women is a comprehensive (823 pages) look at how the story of this camp and its inhabitants unfolded over the course of World War II. Ravensbruck’s function shifted over time, as did the composition of the women imprisoned there, which at various times included criminals, lesbians, communists, Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. At times these women were political prisoners (the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular, were very much conscientious objectors to the war, who actually could have secured their own release by agreeing with the Nazis), victims of unethical medical experimentation, and slave labour for manufacturers. The prisoners were watched over by female guards, who operated at all times under the supervision of male SS officers.

This is a hard book to summarise, because it covers an extraordinary amount of territory, ranging from the broader political climate to letters written by individual women. There were times while reading it that I got a little lost in the details – and times when I needed to set it aside for a time while I reminded myself that humanity as a whole is not a terrible as it might seem when reading about a concentration camp – but overall If This is a Woman is both powerful and moving.

Why I Love It

In many ways, ‘love’ seems the complete wrong verb to use when describing this book. It’s not something I read because I enjoyed it, or because it was light and fun; it’s not a book I pulled off the shelf because I was looking for a happy ending. Nevertheless, this is a book that I wanted for my keeper shelf so badly that I bought a copy online before I had even finished reading my library copy.

Why?

Because it tells the story of people whose voices are often lost in the World War II narrative.

Because it reminds me that seemingly normal people can do terrible things.

Because there are times when I look at the world around me in 2018 and wonder whether there are things I’m as blind to as many people were blind to concentration camps in 1940.

Before reading this book, I had no idea that there was a concentration camp specifically for women, or that Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned as conscientious objectors to the war. I had done some reading about the Holocaust previously, triggered by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau a few years ago when I happened to be in Poland, but Helm’s work put a lot of what I already knew into context, and fleshed it out.

I think one of the most memorable parts of this book for me is in the photograph section, where there are a series of pictures of the female guards of Ravensbruck. These are black and white photographs of smiling young women, looking like they might be my grandmother and her friends – rowing a boat, posing in a field, standing with dogs, clustered in a congenial group. Their faces don’t look brutal or vicious or cruel, which makes it particularly jarring to look at them while you’re in the process of reading about the camp they worked at. These women were employees; they were free Germans being paid to do a job. They could presumably have walked away…but they didn’t. Trying to reconcile the happy faces with the harsh reality of what the guards were involved with gave me as a reader a lot to think about.

I don’t always want to read books which make me think as much as If This is a Woman did, but there are times when it’s good to get outside your comfort zone. For me, this was one of them.

Where To Get It

If This is a Woman was available from my local library, but – as I said earlier – I actually chose to purchase this version from Book Depository before I had even finished reading it.

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