If This Is A Woman

If This Is A Woman

Publisher: Little Brown
Publication Date: 1 January 2015
Pages: 768

5 Stars

~~Language Warning~~

In May 1939 a Nazi internment camp, specially for women, was opened north of Berlin. The horror that ensued, covered in subtle but powerful and disturbing detail in Helm’s book, defy belief. Astonishingly, the camp, Ravensbrück, seems relatively unknown outside the world of holocaust historians. This is a shameful negation of the the tens of thousands who died here and at sub-camps.

As a woman, an anthropologist, a human, this work has left me speechless, horrified and changed. I want to risk using an escape clause I dislike seeing and that is people far smarter than me have commented and analysed this far better than I can or ever could. I’m not lying. This is true. The study of Nazi / WWII history is a subject many people spend their lives engaging with and only ever scratching the surface.

Some numbers:
– 5-6000 women executed in late 1944 when the SS regime realised they could not win.
– 30-50,000 who died from cold, starvation, beatings, poison and experiments
– 980 German concentration camps
– 30,000 slave labour camps
-500 brothels

Again, this is tip of the iceberg stuff.

If This Is A Woman has taken me two and a half weeks to read.

It has been harrowing and terrible. People watching me on the tube don’t need to think to hard on what it is I’m grimacing or looking angry over. The reactions are involuntary. Every story invokes a reaction. Be it disgust at the “medical procedures” or sympathy pains for the “rabbits”, be it a strange sort of patriotism for the women of the Red Army, be it the revulsion at descriptions of the mountains of bodies waiting to be incinerated, be it the strong feelings of disappointment when, at the last moment, a woman’s freedom is revoked.

Helm has witness testimony that shows the prisoners were wondering if the world knew of their suffering, wondering if anyone cared, wondering if they would ever be saved. Helm also has proof that the truth was suppressed at various levels because they believed civilians wouldn’t believe the reports. The people who decided to hide the truth and decided not to reveal what they knew of Ravensbrück were, in a way, right to do so.

Reading about the plight of these women now, in an environment that is quite sanitised to the horrors, I have to admit that there are moments I couldn’t believe something like this could have been perpetuated. It all seems more suited to a horror movie than real life. The barbarism is mind-blowing.

Even before I was 10 pages in I was wondering what kind of perfect storm occurred that such an enormous clusterfuck was the end result. Hitler, Stalin, Himmler, Gebhardt, Oberheuser, Binz, Suhren, Koegel, Treite – again, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

One thing I do find disappointing from some of the “professional” reviews is the position taken, that If This Is A Woman is a feminist history of the Holocaust. I feel, far to often, a book about women is deemed feminist when there is no legitimate connection. Feminism may have allowed for a woman to write a book about women but this is hardly a text arguing a cause for women. A history book that focuses only on the role of men and excludes women – and we know their are thousands of them, are reviewed for their historical accuracy and the amount of work that has gone into the production of the finished product. Helm’s book, focusing on women, with an astonishing amount of research is now a feminist history. This double standard is ridiculous but it also steals the focus from the women of Ravensbrück.

I can’t help but think we could all learn something from Yevgenia Klemm, leader of the Red Army women – and if you don’t understand what I mean, then I recommend you find a copy of this book and discover just how amazing she is.