There were over 40,000 Nazi concentration camps and incarceration sites during the Holocaust, but only one main camp after 1939 was designated solely for female prisoners. That camp was Ravensbrȕck.
Built in 1938, near the village of Ravensbrȕck, Germany, approximately 50 miles north of Berlin, the camp swelled to 10,000 women in 1942, and by 1945 the figure was 50,000.
Although the women came from many countries, the majority hailed from Poland. They represented a variety of religions, but all were deemed as threats to the Third Reich.
There are no official records on how many women died in Ravensbrȕck, but the estimate is over 10,000. However, this camp was also the site of heinous medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors on otherwise, young healthy women.
Eighty Polish prisoners from Ravensbrȕck, all of them high school age Catholics, were chosen for experiments in which doctors would cut open their leg and then inject bacteria into the wound and wait to see if an infection occurred. Then the wound was injected with sulfa drugs to determine if the sulfa could conquer the infection.
In other experiments, healthy bones from the leg were removed to see if bone grafting elsewhere could take place. In the worst cases, amputations were carried out. Each girl had six different operations performed on her, all without painkillers. Many of the girls died as a result of the experiments, and those who survived were crippled for life. They were easy to identify in the camp because they hopped on crude crutches as a means of mobility. As such, their fellow prisoners gave them the tender nickname of The Rabbits.
When WWII ended, and the Russians liberated Ravensbrȕck in April 1945, Poland became a communist country, and the surviving crippled women returned home with their debilitating medical problems. Living in a communist country, however, did not entitle them to any post-war medical compensations.
One would think that there would have been a world outcry to help these Polish patriots. But Ravensbrȕck was one of the last camps freed and liberated by the Russians, not Americans. Combine that with the horror of the massive Jewish annihilation that had occurred, and the plight of the surviving 64 Polish-Catholic women did not make any headlines.
Enter now, Caroline Ferriday.
Caroline Ferriday was a former actress and New York socialite who had been sympathetic to all things French, including the French Resistance in WWII. It was through stories of the French Resistance that Caroline first heard the story of the Ravensbrȕck Rabbits.
In 1958, 13 years after the end of World War II, Ferriday decided she had to make the American public aware of their story. She first contacted war crimes prosecutor, Benjamin Ferentz. Next, she enlisted the help of Norman Cousins, the publisher of the Saturday Review who ran stories in his paper about the plight of the surviving Polish women.
Finally, Caroline was able to travel to Poland with an American doctor who examined each of the women and determined that 35 of them were healthy enough to travel to America and be re-operated on to correct the devastation of the Ravensbrȕck experiments.
Back in America, Caroline became a one-woman whirlwind to obtain the necessary funds for the women to travel and their expenses. She raised the equivalent in today’s financial market of $43,000. Many doctors volunteered to conduct the surgeries without payment.
In December 1958, the 35 Ravensbrȕck Rabbits arrived in New York City, passing the Statue of Liberty, and went to different hospitals in different states. They welcomed their ensuing surgeries; for many, it was the first time since Ravensbrȕck that their legs were not in constant throbbing pain.
Months later, before the women returned home to Poland, Caroline Ferriday hosted a farewell party for them at her home in Connecticut.
Whoever said that just one person can’t make a difference, never heard of Caroline Ferriday.
Caroline died in 1990 at the age of 87.
While I love writing about strong women, this particular blog was difficult because of the horrific details I encountered in the research. Anytime I am confronted with stories such as this one; I am stunned by the level of cruelty in humanity. But, I am also heartened by how one person truly can change the world.
Thank you to Teresa McCarty for pointing me in the direction of this story and to Martha Hall Kelly who wrote the novel, Lilac Girls, bringing depth to the story of the Ravensbrȕck Rabbits.
By most estimates, approximately 6 million Jews, and 5 million non-Jews were killed by the Nazi Regime during the Holocaust, 1933 – 1945. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people participated in the war crimes.
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