Guest Blogger Karianne Hansen: 'Describing Concentration Camps' (Part One)

Karianne Hansen holds a degree in History from The University of Bergen, Norway, and currently works at The North Sea Traffic War Museum in Telavåg. I met Karianne at the Auschwitz International Summer Academy 2012, the course that started this blog. Karianne recently travelled to Germany to tour several former Nazi concentration camps. In the first part of four installments, Karianne discusses her visit to Ravensbrück.

I just returned to my native country Norway after a three week visit to Germany. During those three weeks I visited a total of five different camps associated with World War Two and the Holocaust. This post is about my impressions and thoughts on some of these camps, as well a comment on the difficulties behind creating narratives in our dealings with such sensitive themes. Although we visited a total of five camps I felt the need to limit the study to three for the sake of clarity; narrowing down the amount of camps enabled me to write more extensively on the chosen ones.


Located on the outskirts of Brandenburg, Ravensbrück, as with so many other camps in the Third Reich, underwent a dramatic change in function after its creation in 1938. From 1939 onwards women and children from all over Europe found Ravensbrück to be their final destination. As the camp was used by the Soviets after the war, most of the original camp structure has disappeared (see picture 1). Nevertheless, markings on the ground accompanied by signs of the functions of various buildings and barracks outlines the camp area. Some original buildings still standing are used for exhibitions themed after the function of the houses. In other words, the existence of original buildings dictates the layouts of the exhibitions.

In the absence of barracks so-called ‘national memorial rooms’ occupy the main section of the Cell building. The concept of ‘national memorial rooms’ is that each nationality represented in the camp creates its own exhibition, thus enabling a variety of interpretation and depictions of the history of Ravensbrück. The diversity of the exhibitions itself is immensely fascinating, and enables each country to create its own national history of the tragedy. An additional element to the national character is the bilingual exhibitions, highlighting the national as well as universal character of events. It shows involvement in the project of commemoration by the countries themselves. The Norwegian exhibition, for instance, was arranged by former inmate Inger Gulbrandsen, having donated clay figures she made herself in the camp; therefore, the exhibition is influenced by other voices than that of professionals. The wooden frames emphasise perhaps what is considered a typically Norwegian aspect, and Gulbrandsen also decided to include Norwegian resistance during the war; it sets out to explain the Norwegian war experience (2). The wooden exhibition is in stark contrast to the Soviet exhibition (I write Soviet because on the wall a placard says ‘CCCP’), where the steel-frame exposes victims and horrors of the war on the Eastern Front in a grey setting (3). Others are less detailed, like the Hungarian room which clearly aims at simplicity; with the dramatic wooden figure covered in black and red colouring, the walls are furnished in simple displays of prison uniforms and artifacts, and information is kept to a minimum (4).

The memorial site and burial ground are located outside the main camp area, and by removing part of the wall it connects the two areas of past suffering and present remembrance. The concept of remembrance is framed by the enormous monument, “Tragende” (Burdened Woman by Will Lamert, 5) and Lake Schwedt (6). In concentration camps ‘space’ speaks for itself – and in Ravensbrück only becomes empowered by the statues of the giant women. The portrayal of women as giants, or larger than life, is a continuing theme in the camp. The statues are mostly concentrated in the memorial area, but also in the former tailor’s workshop – which has been left practically untouched since the Soviet occupation. In this building we find sculptures of prisoners in roughly the same size as the other figures in the camp (7). The building seems nearly endless as some rooms are left completely empty (8), and some of which have been draped in suspended exhibitions, dealing with the subjects of forced labour and Jewish persecution, as well as one room containing faces of survivors. The combination of suspended exhibitions and the group of sculptures in the empty workshop is certain to create an impression not easily forgotten.