Ravensbrück was the only major women’s concentration camp during World War II, located in northern Germany, 90 km north of Berlin at a site near the village of Ravensbrück.
Construction of the camp began in November 1938 by the order of the SS leader Heinrich Himmler and was unusual in that the camp was intended to hold exclusively female inmates. The facility opened in May 1939 and underwent major expansion following the invasion of Poland. Between 1939 and 1945, some 130,000 to 132,000 female prisoners passed through the Ravensbrück camp system; around 40,000 were Polish and 26,000 were Jewish from all countries including Germany,18,800 Russian; 8,000 French, and 1,000 Dutch.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica, about 50,000 of them perished from disease, starvation, overwork and despair; some 2,200 were killed in the gas chambers.Only 15,000 of the total survived until liberation. According to Britannica, on 29–30 April 1945 some 3,500 female prisoners were still alive in the main camp. Although the inmates came from every country in German-occupied Europe, the largest single national group incarcerated in the camp consisted of Polish women. In the spring of 1941, the SS authorities established a small men’s camp adjacent to the main camp. The male inmates built and managed the gas chambers for women, since 1944.
When a new prisoner arrived at Ravensbrück she was required to wear a colour-coded triangle (a winkel) that identified her by category, with a letter sewn within the triangle indicating the prisoner’s nationality. For example, Polish women wore red triangles, denoting a political prisoner, with a letter “P”. (By 1942, Polish women became the largest national component at the camp.) Soviet prisoners of war, and German and Austrian Communists also wore red triangles; common criminals wore green triangles; and Jehovah’s Witnesses were labelled with lavender triangles. Prostitutes, Gypsies, lesbians, or women who refused to marry were classified separately, with black triangles. Jewish women wore yellow triangles but sometimes, unlike the other prisoners, they wore a second triangle for the other categories.
There were children in the camp as well. At first, they arrived with mothers who were Gypsies or Jews incarcerated in the camp or were born to imprisoned women. There were few of them at the time. There were a few Czech children from Lidice in July 1942. Later the children in the camp represented almost all nations of Europe occupied by Germany. Between April and October 1944 their number increased considerably, consisting of two groups. One group was composed of Romani children with their mothers or sisters brought into the camp after the Romani camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau was closed. The other group included mostly children who were brought with Polish mothers sent to Ravensbrück after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. With a few exceptions all these children died of starvation. Ravensbrück had 70 sub-camps used for slave labour that were spread across an area from the Baltic Sea to Bavaria.
In January 1945, prior to the liberation of the remaining camp survivors, an estimated 45,000 female prisoners and over 5,000 male prisoners subsisted at Ravensbrück,including children and those transported from satellite camps only for gassing, which was being performed in haste.
With the Soviet Red Army’s rapid approach in the spring of 1945, the SS leadership decided to remove as many prisoners as they could, in order to avoid leaving live witnesses behind who could testify as to what had occurred in the camp. At the end of March, the SS ordered all physically capable women to form a column and exit the camp in the direction of northern Mecklenburg, forcing over 24,500 prisoners on a death march.Some 2,500 ethnic German prisoners remaining were released, and 500 women were handed over to officials of the Swedish and Danish Red Cross shortly after the evacuation. On April 30, 1945, fewer than 3,500 malnourished and sickly prisoners were discovered alive at the camp when it was liberated by the Red Army. The survivors of the death march were liberated in the following hours by a Russian scout unit.