Horror experience of women subjected to bestial experiments at WWII concentration camp retold in powerful new exhibition
The harrowing experience of 74 Polish women who were transported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and subjected to German medical experiments is the subject of a new permanent exhibition in Lublin.
Entitled ‘The girls from KL Ravensbrück’, the bilingual exhibition was prepared for the 80th anniversary of the Lublin-Warsaw transport (sondertransport) to the camp, which departed from Lublin Castle, where the women had been held as political prisoners prior to being taken to Ravensbrück.
Around 150 women were taken from Lublin prison and in Warsaw, 270 women were added to the transport from Pawiak prison. By the end of the war 130,000 women had been sent to Ravensbrück, of which 40,000 were Polish women.
Of that number only 8,000 survived.
Set up in 1939 exclusively for women, between 1942 and its closure in April 1945, the camp near the village of Ravensbrück in northern Germany saw the Nazis carry out medical experiments to test the effectiveness of sulfonamide drugs.
The exhibition juxtaposes two worlds, that of youthful freedom before the war and the hell of the camp through a display of 4,000 personal objects from the women collected over several years by the museum.
They include secret letters describing the conditions and the women’s everyday struggle for existence, as well as documents, personal mementos and harrowing photographs of the women after they had been subjected to experiments inside the camp.
In one part of the exhibition, visitors can see distressing photographs of the mutilated legs of the young Polish women, the so called ‘rabbits’.
Barbara Ostrowska, curator of the exhibition and deputy director of the Museum of Martyrology said: “This exhibition wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the cooperation of the families of the prisoners who survived the hell of Ravensbrück.”
“They were a unique group. They were political prisoners who went to the camp with a death sentence and as living experiment material, were subjected to pseudomedical experiments. This exhibition is about them.”
Different types of horrific operations were conducted. Some involved mechanically creating a wound in the leg and injecting it with bacteria or injecting bacteria into the muscles of the calf . Others included cutting out parts of the thigh muscle or nerve or deliberately breaking bones to then put them together with a vice or transplanting tibia bones from the right to the left.
Marcin Krzystofik, director of the Institute of National Remembrance department in Lublin said: “These were de facto tortures, because the procedures were very often carried out without anaesthetic. One can imagine the pain which these female prisoners met with. These types of experiments were conducted in many concentration camps and for sure they didn’t serve the development of science, because you don’t conduct these types of experiments on people.”
The opening also coincided with the 100th birthday of Professor Wanda Półtawska, the last surviving female prisoner of Ravensbrück who was subjected to medical experimentation and who was present at the exhibition’s opening.
Born in Lublin, Półtawska joined the Polish underground resistance when the war broke out, but she was found out, caught and incarcerated at the prison in Lublin Castle in 1941 at the age of 19. In September that same year, she was sent, alongside others, to Ravensbrück concentration camp.
On her arrival, Półtawska became a ‘Kaninchen’, a prisoner ordered to take part in medical experiments at the SS clinic run by Dr Karl Gebhardt. The experiments caused her great physical and mental pain, but she made a promise to herself that if she survived, she would become a doctor.
After four years in Ravensbrück, Półtawska survived, and six years later, fulfilled her promise to become a doctor when she finished her medical studies at the Jagiellonian University of Kraków in 1951.
In 1964, Półtawska received a doctorate in Psychiatry and later conducted research on so-called ‘Auschwitz children’, people who had survived the concentration camps as children. She also wrote a memoir entitled ‘And I am afraid of my dreams’.
Another prisoner was Grażyna Christowska, a poet who was also from Lublin and an activist of the Polish underground alongside her father and sister, however after her arrest in 1941, detention in Lublin Castle and then Ravensbrück, unlike Półtawska, she did not survive, but was shot.
The new permanent exhibition ‘The girls from KL Ravensbrück’ is located in the newly opened wing of the Museum of Martyrology ‘Under the Clock’ in Lublin and is accompanied by the release of a book in Polish and English.
To read more about the horrors of Ravensbrück click here.