This project began as an idea to compare two lakes in two Lake Districts, in two different countries, and a continuing personal journey engaging with the Holocaust through the experiences of women survivors I have known.
The two lakes in this instance are in Germany and in England, and on their respective shores are two sites that are connected to the Holocaust in an intriguing way. Ravensbruck concentration camp is on the shores of one, and Calgarth Estate on the shores of the other.
Both are located at the heart of their respective Lake Districts, and both share aspects of a history that is both forbidding, and yet compelling for different reasons. One is about the beginning of new life, the other a question of horror and survival itself.
I wanted to link the two places aesthetically, but my start point was clear. Ravensbruck was primarily a women’s camp, and I knew of one woman who had both experienced Ravensbruck, and who also had a profound connection to Calgarth Estate. Her name is Mala Tribich.
I had been interested in the position of women in my Holocaust learning curve, a curve that continues, and had already worked with the story of one remarkable survivor named Mini Jay who had survived Auschwitz and had been one of those who arrived in the Lake District of England in summer 1945.
I had also become fascinated by the women scientists at Raisko, a sub camp of Auschwitz, where the well-known experiments concerning dandelion rubber were carried out under the almost direct orders of Himmler.
The notion of women working in what was nominally called The Interest Zone of Auschwitz was fascinating, and certainly Minia’s stories of women’s treatment in Auschwitz shone a bright light on an aspect I had little considered until her stories.
But first, the beginnings of this project. When I visited Berlin for the first time many years ago it was to attend a meeting at Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin. I also took the opportunity to walk the streets of Berlin, I realised how much my experience was still shaped by memories and images of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1990.
I once recalled talking to the artist Miroslaw Balka and he commented on how we were born the same year, had grown up alongside each other, but on parallel tracks either side of a divided Europe. Even then I wanted to visit Ravensbruck camp but that was to wait, for now. Ravensbruck womens concentration camp had been pretty much off limits during the whole Cold War period as it was located in East Germany but eventually, years later, I had the chance to visit and see this place for myself by taking a short rail journey to Furstenberg north of Berlin.
Years later, and now my journey to Ravensbruck became a reality and the personal, for me, interconnectedness became a reality via two lakes in two countries.
I visited to Berlin and then made a short rail journey north to Furstenburg but it was a journey that I was never to make in the company of the person I wanted to visit with – Mala Tribich, a survivor of Ravensbruck. Covid restrictions saw to that, but it was still a powerful and emotive visit.
Furstenburg is located in the Mecklenberg Lake District, which on the surface is very much a similar experience to visiting the English Lake District. Lakes cruises, caravan and camping along the shores of lake that is surrounded by trees and mountains.
“Similar” until you come across what was Ravensbruck concentration camp standing on the very edge of Lake Schwedt but at the very furthest opposite shore to the town of Furstenberg. It was odd to see how close the proximity was between this notorious camp and the nearby, idyllic German, Mecklenberg Lake District town of Furstenberg.
It was this incongruity that led to me to think of how some people were taken by the incongruity of a now internationally known Holocaust related story that is embedded within the landscape of Wordsworth’s English Lake District. Could the two incongruities be brought together in a meaningful way beyond the most obvious aesthetics of Romanticism, I wondered?
This project and web page is a pictorial and documentary rumination on a multiplicity of subjects and narratives that still reverberate to my core. The personal interweaving with the public, history interweaving with the present, Romantic tropes intermingling with profound anti Romanticism – where perverse logic can lead to perverse cruelties and barbarism.
This is Two Lakes, Two Countries, and Women of the Interest Zone, a journey incorporating Germany, England, Czech Republic, Poland. A journey incorporating Ravensbruck, Auschwitz, Terezin and Calgarth Estate in the English Lake District.
Women in the Holocaust
The experiences of women in the Holocaust is worth mentioning at the outset. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum describes the unique targeting of women by the Nazis:
“The Nazi regime targeted all Jews, both men and women, for persecution and eventually death. The regime frequently subjected women, however, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to brutal persecution that was sometimes unique to the gender of the victims. Nazi ideology also targeted Roma (Gypsy) women, Polish women, and women with disabilities living in institutions.
Certain individual camps and certain areas within concentration camps were designated specifically for female prisoners. In May 1939, the SS opened Ravensbrück, the largest Nazi concentration camp established for women. Over 100,000 women had been incarcerated in Ravensbrück by the time Soviet troops liberated the camp in 1945.
In 1942, SS authorities established a compound in Auschwitz-Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II) to incarcerate female prisoners. Among the first inmates were prisoners whom the SS transferred from Ravensbrück. At Bergen-Belsen, the camp authorities established a women’s camp in 1944. The SS transferred thousands of Jewish female prisoners from Ravensbrück and Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen during the last year of World War Two.
The Germans and their collaborators spared neither women nor children, Jewish or non-Jewish, in conducting mass murder operations. Nazi ideology promoted the complete annihilation of all Jews, regardless of age or gender. SS and police officials carried out that policy under the codename “Final Solution.” German SS and police officials shot both women and men in mass shooting operations at hundreds of locations on occupied Soviet territory. During deportation operations, pregnant women and mothers of small children were consistently labeled “incapable of work.” They were sent to killing centres, where camp officials often included them in the first groups to be sent to the gas chambers.
Orthodox Jewish women accompanied by children were especially vulnerable, since people in orthodox Jewish dress were certainly more vulnerable to discovery in hiding or to particularly sadistic behavior in pogrom-like activities. The larger number of children in Orthodox families also made women in those families a special target of Nazi ideology.
Non-Jewish women were vulnerable as well. The Nazis committed mass murder of Romani (Gypsy) women at Auschwitz concentration camp, murdered females with disabilities in the T-4 and other euthanasia operations, and slaughtered women along with men as so-called partisans in many Soviet villages in 1943-1944.
In ghettos and concentration camps, German authorities deployed women in forced labor under conditions that often led to their deaths. German physicians and medical researchers used Jewish and Roma (Gypsy) women as subjects for sterilization experiments and other unethical human experimentation.
In both camps and ghettos, women were particularly vulnerable to beatings and rape. Pregnant Jewish women often tried to conceal their pregnancies or were forced to submit to abortions. Females deported from Poland and the Soviet Union for forced labor in the Reich were often beaten or raped, or forced to submit to sexual relations for food or other necessities or basic comforts. Pregnancy sometimes resulted for Polish, Soviet, or Yugoslav forced laborers from sexual relations with German men. If so-called “race experts” determined that the child was not capable of “Germanization,” the women were generally forced to have abortions, sent to give birth in makeshift nurseries where conditions would guarantee the death of the infants, or simply shipped to the region they came from without food or medical care. The Germans established brothels in some concentration and labor camps, and the German army ran roughly 500 brothels for soldiers, in which women were forced to work.
Many women incarcerated in the concentration camps created informal “mutual assistance” groups which facilitated survival through sharing information, food, and clothing. Often, the members of such groups came from the same city or province, had had a similar level and style of education, or shared family ties. Other women were able to survive when the SS camp authorities deployed them in clothing repair, cooking, laundry, and housecleaning detachments”.
“Windermere greeted Mala in warm sunshine, as it had a few years ago when I first met her in the Lakes. We had seen each other in Prague a few months before, and it was great to see her in Windermere. We met for a meal in Ambleside with Rose, and talked much about the following day. I wanted Mala to be part of my ‘In Conversation With’ idea, which meant that our conversation in front of a small audience would be more organic than perhaps she was used to. She agreed to do it, and I was reassuring her that it was the way to go, to try to breakdown the so-called Dramatic Convention and involve the audience more in the conversation.
When the day came we were fortunate to have Ike in the audience as well. Mala talked of Piotrkow, her birthplace, Ravensbruck, and Belsen (where she was liberated). The talk was compelling, utterly. She talked of how good the young, British soldiers had been after the liberation and how many of them had lost their lives to the illnesses and disease that stalked Belsen after liberation. I knew, even if she did not on this occasion share this with the audience, that the young soldiers (some barely older than she was at aged fifteen) had entertained Mala and other women survivors at picnics and arranged open air dancing and social events “even though we must have looked terrible. They made us feel special again, and it is something that I will remember for the rest of my days”. “Beyond words”.
“After the ‘In Conversation With’ event involving Mala in Windermere, I see more clearly how and why The Women of the Interest Zone project evolved into the exhibition that focused on Minia, and key moments when her life could literally have ended brutally, and didn’t. Images of places of significance associated to those moments (with images of her family at places along her journey) exist in a parallel universe after those events. Objects and her personal photos provide a museological overview of her life after the Holocaust, which attempts to redefine Minia (reaffirm?) her life as one that exists outside the camps so that she is not defined by them…..and yet her survival of the camps remained a defining part of her life. This is the pernicious legacy and paradox that the camps leave in the lives of a survivor of the camps, and to an extent on their families”.
A talk with Mala Tribich can be found here: (Courtesy of the Holocaust Education Trust):
“Berlin to Ravensbruck – but first you pass Sachsenhausen camp travelling north from Berlin, or so it says in the travelogue books. Not so much is made, in the same books, of travelling to Ravensbruck women’s camp but it is another couple of stops along the line from Oranienburg/Sachsenhausen on a train ride from Gesundbrunnen station in Berlin. The train passes through Oranienburg where one of the first concentration camps was set up by the Nazi regime in 1933. Oranienburg camp itself was closed in 1936 when the notorious Sachsenhausen camp opened. Ravensbruck was established on the orders of Himmler in 1939 and is located a little further on, and the train station destination was Furstenberg. What a surprise that was! Located in what a Rough Guide described as “Lake District of Germany” the little town stood on the shores of a lake. The whole experience felt like a visit to Windermere and Bowness (kind of). Apparently, when the women arrived on the train for the camp they would walk through Furstenberg and the whole town would be able to see them. I imagined Mala arriving as a young teenaged girl from Poland and I just tried to think how it must have been for her, to be honest. Think, but thinking clearly is hard sometimes when you are overwhelmed by the senses.
Ravensbruck stands on the edge of the lake and I was captivated by the camping and caravan park nearby, the pleasure cruisers criss-crossing the lake, and the boats coming to just off shore of Ravensbruck to show the passengers the site of a concentration camp (for goodness sake). From where I stood on shore I could just about hear a guide talking on board, but not much more. I wonder if the guide told them roughly 40,000 perished here? And about the late war arrival of gas chambers? Maybe did, maybe didn’t, who knows. Unsettling how close to a town, and a spa town at that, Ravensbruck stood. I should not be surprised, but I am. Constantly. And as I sit on the pavement of my hotel in Berlin I finally look differently at the street sign nearby – Oranienburgerstrasse – and I take more notice of the mighty synagogue nearby, recently restored after seventy years.” Trevor Avery
Following liberation, in June 1945 the Home Office finally gave permission for a thousand Jewish orphans aged from eight to sixteen to be brought to the UK for recuperation, and ultimate re-emigration overseas. The Home Office were made aware that it was unlikely that any documents would be available giving proof of age, and the children rescued from concentration camps would most probably have no identification papers of any kind.
With this fact established, three hundred children were flown on the 13th August 1945 from Prague, to the UK and subsequently the Lake District.
According to immigration officials the first of the Stirling aircraft to arrive at Crosby on Eden from Prague touched down at 5.00pm on 14 August 1945.
From that moment onwards, other aircraft arrived at regular intervals until the final one touched down at 8.45pm. The aircraft carrying baggage was to arrive the following day.
The first UK home for the children who had flown from Prague was on the now ‘lost’ village of Calgarth Estate that stood at Troutbeck Bridge, about one mile from Windermere.
Calgarth Estate was a wartime housing scheme built for aircraft factory workers employed at nearby White Cross Bay. The estate had its own shops, canteen, entertainment hall and many other facilities.
The children were placed in what were the single workers accommodation hostels. They were each given their own small room, a bed and clean linen. For many it was their first encounter with privacy and cleanliness in five years.
The children were cared for by a supportive network, and were offered opportunities for sport, education, outdoor recreation and healthcare. Over a period of six months they were gradually moved to other homes in places throughout the UK, and they left Calgarth Estate by early 1946.
When Ben Helfgott began his recovery in the Lake District of England he did not know if any of his family had survived. It was an anxiety that so many of his group of three hundred young Jewish people would have during their time on Calgarth Estate as they sought to cope with the trauma of the past and began to look to the future.
There is little doubt that according to Ben, and so many other of his group, their arrival and stay in the Lake District was like “arriving in Paradise”.
In the words of one of the younger Jewish children at the time “this is a good country”.
Ben’s sister, Mala Tribich, was recovering after being liberated in Bergen Belsen camp. She poignantly recalls the moment of liberation as being initially underwhelming because she was so ill, and very sick indeed, and her recovery in Belsen was a slow process.
As she recovered she received a message from authorities that her brother Ben had not only survived but was living in England.
Ben recalls being in the Lake District in 1945, and hearing that his sister had survived. They both recall the sheer pleasure and relief at the news that they had someone.
The motivation for Two Lakes Countries came about from the story of how Mala and Ben discovered their mutual survival, and the strange incongruity that I discovered when I visited the horror of the place that is Ravensbruck concentration camp, and compared it with the English Lake District.
More than that, I thought of how Ben found his “Paradise” at the heart of Wordsworth’s Lake District, and his sister had survived her Hell of Ravensbruck camp, which by a strange twist of fate was at the heart of the German Lake District.
Two Lakes Two Countries, indeed.
Sir Ben Helfgott MBE