Important testimonies digitised

The Ravensbrück archive at the University Library is unique in the world. Nowhere else is there a collection of 500 testimonies from concentration camp survivors, recorded so soon after their terrible ordeal. Now, their stories from Ravensbrück will be made available in digital form, so that anyone can search the archive.

Håkan Håkansson BRED

Drawings. Several of the women imprisoned at Ravensbrück subsequently became established artists. Håkan Håkansson is managing the Ravensbrück project at the University Library.

Jadwiga Kurowska has connections to the Ravensbrück archive through her Polish mother and father. LUM met her in the park of the University Library on a sunny winter’s day, in the sparkling snow. Her parents loved coming here, to visit the University Library and its reading rooms.

“My mother was imprisoned in Ravensbrück, with her two sisters and her mother. They ended up there because my maternal grandfather was active in the resistance movement. He was tortured and died already during the preliminary interrogations. One of my mother’s sisters died in the prison camp, aged only 22. But the others survived, thanks to the fact that they had each other and close friends in the camp, who helped one another”, she says.

Women and children were sent to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. Jadwiga Kurowska’s father, Bozyslaw, was also imprisoned in various concentration camps between 1939 and 1945. He was arrested one morning, one of 1500 young men including many academics, teachers and priests, who were taken away and imprisoned to crush the resistance of the Polish population in the occupied regions of the country.

Jadwiga Kurowska

Jadwiga Kurowska, whose father was involved in creating the Ravensbrück archive.

“It is important to remember that what started as the persecution of Jews also affected others, such as Roma, homosexuals, people active in resistance movements, the disabled and other groups”, she says.

When Jadwiga’s father arrived in Sweden in 1945, having suffered severely, he was soon given a task through a Swedish government commission in November 1945. His pre-war experience as a lawyer in Poland led to his inclusion among nine concentration camp survivors tasked with documenting what had happened, above all in Ravensbrück. He and his well-educated colleagues interviewed over 500 women and men who had recently arrived in Sweden on white buses. They used questions based on methodological instructions developed at Lund University by Professor Sture Bolin. They took their task extremely seriously.

“It is unique that the interviews were conducted so soon after the war, within a couple of months, and on the basis of a collaboration with the University. Those conducting the interviews commented on them and also fact-checked where possible. In one place, my father certified that the details of a death march to Schwerin were correct. He knew, because he had been forced on the march himself.”

Ravensbruck bocker

The women produced textbooks and taught the children in secret. Here the fabric of a prisoner’s uniform has been used as a cover.

Many small donations, and a few large ones, have enabled the Ravensbrück archive to be translated and digitised. Besides the 500 interviews, the archive contains drawings, letters, textbooks and books with recipes. It also holds carefully compiled lists of prisoners. When they died, their names were crossed out. Håkan Håkansson, who is managing the Ravensbrück project at the University Library, unpacks densely written interviews and other objects on a table to show us.

 

“The women produced their own textbooks and taught the children in secret”, he says, showing a textbook with a cover made of the stripy fabric of prisoners’ uniforms.

Several times a month, people contact the University Library, most of them from outside Sweden, wanting to search the archive, usually for traces of a relative’s history.

“It has been difficult to find one’s way among the interviews, consisting of 5000 paper documents in Polish, which are now being translated and digitised. In October, we will open our digital portal, allowing anyone to search the archive: researchers, schoolchildren, relatives”, says Håkan Håkansson.

In addition to the interviews, a selection of the other documents are being digitised, including books of poetry, textbooks and transport lists. It is not possible to translate the entire archive as it consists of hundreds of thousands of pages. Both Jadwiga Kurowska’s parents are now deceased, as are most of the direct witnesses of life in the concentration camps. While they were alive, it was important that they had a chance to bear witness and recount their experiences.

“Now my three siblings and I tell the story. It is important to keep it alive so as to prevent a repetition of this appalling suffering. Setting up the concentration camps created a system which compelled people to do their duty by killing one another. In order for new generations to be able to understand history, we must tell them about the larger context, but also about the destinies of individual people”, says Jadwiga Kurowska.

The Ravensbrück archive has set aside money for precisely this purpose, through a documentary film.

“Of course, our dream is to find someone for the documentary who is still alive and was interviewed just after the war. It is not completely impossible, because many of them were very young women at the time”, says Håkan Håkansson.

Once the archive has been digitised, the University Library will also increase activities dedicated to schools. Currently, upper secondary school pupils on Katedralskolan’s specialisation programme in history use the archive and Håkan Håkansson hopes it will reach more school classes. Jadwiga Kurowska remembers when she was in sixth grade and was about to start learning about the Second World War. The teacher asked her in front of the whole class whether it was true that both her parents had been in concentration camps.

“I became completely mute and cold. Even today, I feel sorrow when I talk about the suffering my parents endured. But also pride for the courage they both showed and passed on within the family and to others. For me, that entails the courage to ask questions, not to accept unfounded or false statements.”

Her mother, Maria Kurowska, dedicated her life to helping others, in the concentration camp and later in Sweden. As a trained nurse, she often saw what her fellow prisoners needed.

“She was the bravest person I knew. She was quiet and soft-spoken, but exposed herself to enormous risks to help others. On one occasion, she managed to vaccinate her fellow prisoners against typhus in secret”, says Jadwiga Kurowska.

The shadows from the horrors of war were also noticeable in the silences of childhood, in what went unsaid.

“My mother said that we could ask her anything. At the same time, we knew that she had terrible nightmares afterwards”, she says, remembering her mother’s tormented expression at the breakfast table after a difficult night.

Text and photos: Jenny Loftrup