Guarding the Truth

Margarete Barthel
Margarete Barthel, 83, in her house near Duesseldorf. During World War II, she worked at Ravensbruek, a Nazi camp dedicated to the incarceration and murder of women. (Silvia Otte)
By Alix Christie
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Margarete Barthel says she feels guilty for her wartime role as a guard at Ravensbrueck concentration camp. She also says it was the 'most beautiful' time of her life

The road to Ravensbrueck is buried in the outskirts of an ordinary German town, neither obvious nor clearly marked. Past grime-stained stucco houses frozen for more than half a century by East German communism, the fields and woods stretch east, toward Poland. A ribbon of asphalt breaks right and dips past an aging Soviet tank, then gently toward a pristine lake. Only then do the pocked concrete fence posts appear, with their few clinging strands of wire.

Two rows of three-story chalets with porches and brown shutters overlook the reed-lined lakeshore. It was those "wonderful houses" that Margarete Barthel, gazing out the car window, recognized first. The lake district of Mecklenburg was beautiful, she'd told her children; she'd waited years for the Berlin Wall to fall, to return and look again across the water at the red-tiled roofs of the town of Fuerstenberg.

Hundreds of women had made this pilgrimage since the Cold War ended, passing once more through the outer wall onto a silent plain, empty of all but the foundation lines of the barracks where so many were destroyed. Ravensbrueck, Margarete murmured to her daughter, Monika, who accompanied her on her return. Ravensbrueck, the only Nazi concentration camp dedicated to the incarceration and murder of women. Sixty years after some 30,000 perished here, those who passed through the camp are incessantly drawn back, braving infirmity and grief to retrace this bumpy road. All of them Holocaust survivors -- until that summer day in 1996, when Margarete Barthel walked into the main exhibition hall.

She was 74 then, still robust, intent as she scanned the photos for faces she might know. The docent who approached her took her for a typical visitor -- a Polish communist, French resistante, Czech Jew, perhaps. Margarete shook her head when asked if she needed help. "No, thank you," she responded. "I know my way around." She took a breath, then said it. "I was a guard here."

The telephone rang almost immediately one floor below, in the office of memorial director Sigrid Jacobeit. Even today, remembering that call raises goose flesh on her arms. Never before had one of the 3,500 young German and Austrian women trained to work as guards at Ravensbrueck or elsewhere returned and openly declared herself.

"Here was this woman," says Jacobeit, a slender, intense East German historian who ran the Ravensbrueck memorial from 1992 until her retirement last year. "She looked so -- grandmotherly -- yet she'd been a guard. I didn't know how to approach her." Jacobeit gazes at the photographs of elderly survivors on her office walls. "Then I said to myself, 'She's a human being, after all,' and I went upstairs."

Standing in the upstairs hall, Margarete was nervous but not afraid. She had done it: She had come back, as she felt she must. It had taken a day of travel from the Ruhr Valley, where she grew up and still lives, to the camp, about 50 miles north of Berlin. She did not know then that she was the only SS Aufseherin who had ever dared to show her face -- nor that this peculiar, forthright bluntness of hers would come to undermine the comforting tale of innocence she had told herself for 50 years.

The testimony of everyday German men and women who perpetrated Nazi horror has almost never come to light. Nazi leaders testified in their own postwar trials; a few wrote memoirs. Soldiers left diaries and letters that historians have since unearthed. But the vast majority of Nazi perpetrators -- the millions of low-level functionaries who did the daily, dirty work of genocide -- took their stories with them to the grave. Few divulged their pasts, even to their own families.

Margarete Barthel, now 83 and housebound by arthritis, is a rare exception. She alone has felt driven to try to explain. Not only how she became an SS guard, but also the perverse paradox of her life: That while today she feels guilt for "all those murdered people," the macabre truth is that, "for me, the time in Ravensbrueck was the most beautiful time."

Since coming forward, Margarete has told her story half a dozen times, both at Ravensbrueck and in the cramped living room of her modest row house in Oberhausen, near Duesseldorf. She seemed eager, almost desperate, to talk -- first to the camp historians, who were keen for any information about the guards, and, as time went on, to other researchers and journalists wielding more probing questions. At first, she relished sharing each detail. In her warm face and in her alert and smiling eyes shone a hunger to align fact and memory -- a desire for rehabilitation as a valued source. But then the questions got more pointed. Why had she done it, later interviewers wanted to know. And why, half a century later, did she feel compelled to speak?

All she wants is to set the record straight, Margarete says, for others to see her for the manipulated young woman she believed herself to be, not one of the criminal "blond beasts" that female SS are seen as. Her family learned her secret first -- and they believe her. When her daughter, Monika, was 16, Margarete recounted her life story. "At the time, I was enraged," Monika told one of Jacobeit's researchers in 2004. "But when I learned it wasn't voluntary -- that she'd been sent there -- well, what kind of chance did she have? What could she have done?"

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