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Diverse population: Ravensbrück concentration camp, where up to 50,000 women died (courtesy of Little, Brown)

In 2005, the journalist Sarah Helm published a fascinating biography of Vera Atkins, the officer of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) responsible for dispatching women agents into France during the Second World War.

In the course of her research, Helm had retraced Atkins’s steps after the defeat of Hitler when she went to France and Germany to interview the captors of the SOE operatives. Atkins had discovered that several of them landed in a concentration camp for women at Ravensbrück, near Berlin. Violette Szabo, the former shop assistant who had first departed from RAF Tempsford on  April 5, 1944, was shot in Ravensbrück in January 1945. She was awarded a posthumous George Cross. SOE agents Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe were executed around the same time. Cecily Lefort was gassed there in February 1945. Odette Sansom (who also was to awarded the George Cross), Yvonne Basedon and Eileen Nairne survived.

Helm then embarked on a further journey of discovery by researching the conditions for all the prisoners and guards in Ravensbrück. With the years that had passed since her investigation into Atkins, the last survivors of the camp were getting even older. Her work was a last chance to meet them. She became ever more deeply involved in a massive project which took her to, among other places, Berlin, Cracow, Warsaw, Moscow, St Petersburg, Donetsk, Odessa, Jerusalem, Bad Arolsen, Geneva, Vienna, Paris and Bordeaux, although one survivor turned out to be a neighbour in London.

Written as a collective “biography” of a camp complex in which an estimated 130,000 women were confined at one time or other during 1939-45 and where 40,000-50,000 died, her packed, compellingly written book comes to more than 750 pages. It is an indication of its power and significance that my main regret is that it frequently feels too short.

Since the author has gathered such a wealth of material, much of it from interviews with elderly survivors and from documents provided by them and their families, it is vital that she prepares for herself, for scholars and for the remaining survivors a full set of interview notes, documents and more detailed source notes for future reference. It was impractical to lengthen the book by detailing the source material, but there is a strong case for making it available, possibly online.

Though Helm has skilfully arranged her material into a chronological narrative, there is such a quantity of it covering such a variety of topics that the book is effectively a set of studies and portraits rolled into one. This is partly because Ravensbrück included such a diverse population. Women were sent there because they were German Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or “asocials” (prostitutes or lesbians), members of the French, Polish, Norwegian or Dutch resistance, Russian POWs, gypsies, or Hungarian Jews. She covers topics including resistance within the camp, how ingenious attempts at communication with the outside world were successful but were then ignored, cruel medical experiments, and the behaviour of the female guards.

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