As a prisoner at the Nazis' Ravensbrueck concentration camp for women, Anja Lundholm saw an SS commandant murder a 3-year-old boy by smashing his head against a wall.
"It was horrible. It's not something I like to talk about," said Lundholm, now a 76-year-old author.She remembers watching one of her friends killed by a guard dog and another friend commit suicide by throwing herself onto electrified barbed-wire. "I sensed a painful loss, deep inside me," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Frankfurt.
Lundholm said she would not be at the former camp Sunday when about 1,000 of Ravensbrueck's few survivors were expected to attend ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation.
From 1939 until 1945, more than 130,000 women were imprisoned at Ravensbrueck, guarded by jackboot-clad female SS guards armed with horsewhips and snarling dogs. About 40,000 men also passed through the camp, but stayed in a separate section.
Thousands of children from across Europe were sent with their mothers to the camp north of Berlin. They were killed when they could no longer work.
Ravensbrueck's specialty was a ramp where prisoners were marched up, then shot in the back of the neck. Ravensbrueck - whose gas chamber went into operation only four months before the war ended - was the only concentration camp on German soil where people were gassed. Millions of Jews and other people died in Nazi gas chambers in occupied Poland.
At least 50,000 prisoners are thought to have been killed at Ravensbrueck from shootings, medical experiments, gassing, beatings, slave labor, disease or hunger.
Forced abortions and drowning of babies at birth were the norm until 1943. After that, 800 children were born and their mothers were allowed to keep them. But most died of disease and malnutrition anyway, said Britta Pawelke, a researcher at the former camp, which has been turned into a memorial.
When Red Army soldiers arrived on April 30, 1945, they found about 2,000 sick prisoners. Some 7,500 had been turned over to the Red Cross in the preceding weeks as part of an attempt by SS chief Heinrich Himmler to arrange a negotiated surrender. An additional 20,000 had been marched out of the camp to keep them from being rescued, and many died.
The SS forced some women to become sex slaves for guards and privileged prisoners at other concentration camps. Some were lured to the assignment by the promise of more food and a warm place to sleep, only to find conditions were just as bad, or worse.
Those who were eventually written up by the SS as "worn-out" through abuse were sent to die in Ravensbrueck.
Communist and leftist German women were the first prisoners sent to Ravensbrueck. Lundholm was in a group that helped smuggle opponents of Nazism out of the country.
Polish women were singled out for excruciating medical experiments that many did not survive. These women were referred to by the SS as "rabbits," seen not as humans but test subjects.
For example, the camp's SS doctors would inject bacteria into a woman's leg. An infection quickly resulted that created a gaping wound all the way to the bone. This was done to simulate injuries German soldiers might suffer in combat.
The SS guards did all they could to destroy feminine pride. Women were taken to the whipping block just for altering their sacklike camp dresses to make them a little more attractive. Sanitary napkins, even made from rags, were forbidden. Cosmetics were not allowed. Heads were shaved.
The women were allowed a few minutes a day for mass washing at scarce, cold-water taps, but it was impossible to stay clean when the barracks were like open sewers from the intestinal ailments of the prisoners.
Some camp prisoners did what they could to protect mothers and children. Lundholm recalls sneaking into a privileged prisoners' barracks with some other prisoners to steal food for the starving little ones.
When a mother died, another prisoner took the orphan under her wing.
Lundholm, who wrote "Hell's Gate" in 1991 about her Rav-ens-brueck experiences, remembers a conversation inside her barracks between a 5-year-old girl named Jackie and a young teacher named Heli.
Jackie's mother had been killed in the gas chamber, and Jackie worried she would be sent there as well.
"Is gassing painful?" the child asked.
Hoping to soothe her, Heli replied it was like growing wings and flying to heaven.
The little girl died in the gas chamber and Heli from a disease.