It was just after reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, a story that focuses on two sisters – Isabelle and Vianne Rosingal – in occupied France, and what they did to survive the war, that I read an article about seventy-two Polish Catholic female prisoners who were subjected to a series of inhumane medical experiments by Nazi doctors at Ravensbrück, World War II’s only all-female concentration camp. Their stories were as heart-rendering as those of Isabelle and Vianne. The Ravensbrück women were nicknamed throughout the camp as “lapins” or “rabbits” because they were used as human laboratory animals – and also, because the cruel experiments often left them with injuries and deformities that meant hopping was the only way they could move around.
Hitler had decreed that Germany needed Poland for expanded living space – the Poles were expendable. At least three hundred villages were razed to the ground and the Polish people massacred. Some young Polish women were interred at Ravensbrück and a fate seemingly worse than death awaited them. Ravensbrück, some fifty-six miles north of Berlin, was a forced labor camp for women. Prisoners from more than thirty countries were forced to work under brutal conditions in agriculture, local industry, the production of armaments, and camp maintenance.
In the beginning, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron; SS), used Ravensbrück as a show camp. There were flowers in the window boxes, birdcages and a beautiful road lined with trees. Himmler would show it to the international Red Cross to prove he was supposedly treating the prisoners well.
But beginning in August 1942, seventy-four of them, and one German Jehovah’s Witness, were chosen to advance Nazi medical science. All were Christians, but Hitler had condemned the Poles as he had the Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. The Nazis considered Poles racially inferior. These relatively healthy women in their teens and twenties were taken to a hospital and experimented on in the most horrific ways imaginable. Nazi doctors sliced deep into their legs, then sprinkled dirt and glass into the wounds and waited for the inevitable swelling, infection and fever. The doctors also smashed the women’s bones for grafting experiments. A total of seventy-two “rabbits” were subjected to these horrific experiments; sixty-three survived the war, largely due to the help of other inmates. Word reached the outside world via notes passed at great risk by prisoners working in factories and hidden in correspondence with families. The plight of the Ravensbrück “rabbits” became a cause célèbre for a unified network of underground resistance. Of the 130,000 women sent to Ravensbrück, only 40,000 survived.
Ravensbrück’s sulfonamide experiments, as they were known, were performed to test the efficacy of sulfa drugs. They studied nerve and tissue regeneration, including bone transplantation from one person to another. Otherwise healthy prisoners had parts of bone, muscle and tissue removed without anesthesia; healthy limbs were amputated. While the research was ostensibly to study battle wounds, that was only what the Nazis wanted people to believe.
The experiments were actually precipitated by the death of one of Hitler’s closest associates, high-ranking SS officer Reinhard Heydrich – nicknamed “The Blond Beast” by the Nazis and “Hangman Heydrich” by others – who died from injuries sustained during a car bombing in 1942. Heydrich was treated by Himmler’s personal physician, Dr. Karl Gebhardt, but Gebhardt refused to use sulfa drugs, thinking Heydrich would recover. When Heydrich died, Hitler blamed Gebhardt for the death of Heydrich, whose death some believed could have been prevented had Heydrich been treated with sulfonamide. Himmler suggested to Gebhardt that he should conduct experiments proving that sulfonamide was useless in the treatment of gangrene and sepsis. In order to vindicate his decision to not administer sulfa drugs in treating Heydrich’s wounds, Gebhardt carried out a series of experiments on Ravensbrück concentration camp prisoners, breaking their legs and infecting them with various organisms in order to prove the worthlessness of the drugs in treating gas gangrene. He also attempted to transplant the limbs from camp victims to German soldiers wounded on the Russian front. The Ravensbrück experiments were slanted in Gebhardt’s favor; women in the sulfonamide-treated experimental group received little or no nursing care, while those in the untreated control group received better care. Not surprisingly, those in the control group were more likely to survive the experiments.
At first, the experiments were conducted on male prisoners at Sachsenhausen, a camp in Oranienburg, Germany, but those were suspended because the prisoners complained too much and were becoming difficult to control.
So the physicians turned to women, thinking they would submit meekly. They would take groups of ten women, keep them for a while and then use a different group. Some of them died during the experiments, and several were executed right after. Some had not healed yet, and had to be carried to the shooting wall.
After the war, several Ravensbrück survivors said that those who were about to be executed would pinch their cheeks for color, do their hair, do the best they could to make themselves beautiful for that last walk. And they talked about whether they would be brave enough to shout “Long Live Poland,” because the Nazis hated that. There was a sedative drink the guards would give them, and some women refused to take it.
During the last months of the war, the Nazis were determined to execute all remaining “rabbits,” as that they were living proof of the atrocities committed. But other Ravensbrück inmates intervened in a great show of solidarity.
The “rabbits” had been gathered in a room and rumors were circulating; everyone believed this would be the night of their execution. That was when a group of Russian prisoners shut down the electrical grid, plunging the camp into darkness and allowing the women to hide under bunkers and in attic spaces. They remained safe this way until March 1945, when they were rescued and brought to Sweden via the Red Cross.
Ravensbrück was one of the last camps liberated, leaving the Nazis plenty of time to destroy documents. As a result, little is known about the camp. But by the time it closed down, the results of the countless rabbit experiments were slanted in Gebhardt’s favor.
The story of the “rabbits” went largely untold until 1958, when Caroline Ferriday, who lived in Connecticut and came from a wealthy New York City dry goods fortune, learned of it from a friend and convinced journalist Norman Cousins to write an article in the weekly magazine, Saturday Review. Cousins had, she knew, arranged to bring a group of “Hiroshima Maidens” to the United States for cosmetic surgery. Would he consider doing the same for the scarred young women of Ravensbrück? Reader donations poured in, totaling $5,000 — a healthy amount at the time.
Ferriday, then fifty-six, was determined: The women would come to America, and she would help them receive treatment for their Ravensbrück injuries.
After months of negotiations with the Communist Polish government, thirty-five of the “rabbits” – nearly half of the group – came to the United States for extensive treatment, both physical and mental. The women went to different cities, depending on which hospitals were best suited to handle their specific injuries. Four of the former prisoners stayed at Ferriday’s house in Bethlehem, Connecticut for Christmas in 1958.
Caroline Ferriday’s circumstances could not have been more different than that of the Ravensbrück “rabbits” – and yet she became one of their biggest defenders during a time when the reality of concentration camps seemed very distant to most Americans.
During the intensifying buildup to World War II in the mid-to late 1930s, Ferriday volunteered at the French consulate in New York City, where she was privy to news of France’s developing difficulties. French General Charles de Gaulle, having escaped to Great Britain when the Nazis invaded France, in 1940 gave a BBC radio address that invigorated the resistance spirit of everyday people and gave birth to the Free France movement. By 1941, Ferriday had become one of the early American members of France Forever, the Fighting French Committee in America, supporting the French Resistance during World War II. A few years later, Ferriday affiliated herself with the ADIR, or National Association of Deportees and Internees of the Resistance, founded in 1945 by female members of the French resistance who had survived their internment in the German camps. Ferriday became particularly moved by the energy of ADIR members Jacqueline Péry D’Alincourt, Genevieve de Gaulle, Anise Postel-Vinay, and Germaine Tillon, four women who had bonded as political prisoners in Ravensbrück. They were designated as NN (Nacht und Nebel, or “night and fog”); political prisoners who were meant to disappear and never to be heard from again. These four women, however, did not disappear.
All were later to have an impact on Ferriday’s life. In the 1950s, Ferriday joined the effort to help the “rabbits,” whom she had learned about through her affiliation with the ADIR. Ferriday remained friends with these four women until her death in 1990.
In 1958, thirteen years after the end of World War II, Ferriday was among the first to awaken the American public to the horrors of Ravensbrück. Because Poland was behind the Iron Curtain, the camp was liberated by the Russian Army, not the American. And since it was a camp for women and not specifically devoted to the extermination of the Jews, the history of this camp was slow to emerge.
Ferriday traveled to Warsaw in 1958 and acted as an emissary and liaison to meet with Polish officials and to gain the trust of the “rabbits.” She and Cousins, who had indeed agreed to help, contacted the “rabbits,” now in Poland, and arranged their trip to the United States for care. Cousins wrote a series of three articles about the “rabbits” that appeared in the Saturday Review in 1958 and 1959. The stories captured the hearts of Americans and gave Ferriday credit for her motivating role.
Ferriday returned to Warsaw a second time that year with Dr. William Hitzig, a prominent New York physician who also had aided Japanese victims of the atomic bomb for the Hiroshima Maidens project. Representing American doctors who had agreed to treat the “rabbits” if they came to the United States, Dr. Hitzig examined the women and assessed their medical needs. Of the fifty-three “rabbits” still surviving in 1958, thirty-five made the trip to the United States for a stay that lasted from December 1958 to December 1959. The “rabbits,” renamed the “Ladies,” stayed in small groups with host families in twelve cities from Boston to San Francisco. In addition to the medical treatment they received, the most remarkable change in the group as a whole was in the emotional and psychological regeneration of the “Ladies.”
In the summer of 1959, the “Ladies” gathered in San Francisco and began a cross-country tour. On their way to their final engagement in New York, they stopped in Washington, DC, where a large number of Senators and Representatives was host to the “Ladies” at a special lunch in the Senate dining room and they were delighted when Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas called the attention of the Senate to their presence. Two days after the “Ladies” were introduced to the Senate, with attention garnered from the United States tour, the Ravensbrück Lapins (Rabbits) Committee, which was legally empowered to act for the women, received a check from the German embassy to pay the medical costs for thirty of the women during their stay in America and was told that the Federal German Government was thoroughly and urgently examining possibilities of further relief. Ferriday continued to maintain relationships with several of the “Ladies” and other Ravensbrück internees
Caroline Ferriday died on 27 April 1990. Jacqueline Péry D’Alincourt attended her memorial service and in a tribute wrote: “In our first meeting our friendship was sealed. She wanted to know everything. She asked ‘What can I do?’ Every year she welcomed me to the lovely Connecticut home where she lived since 1913. Such was the incomparable benefactor of our association.” Genevieve de Gaulle, too, wrote a memorial tribute, hers appearing in the March/April 1991 ADIR newsletter Voix et Visages. She described Ferriday as “a sister to everyone. She helped us to gain recognition first, and then to compensate the victims of pseudo-medical experiments. She brought about this action with all her intelligence, all her generosity. . . .”
Visitors to Ferriday’s family home – the Bellamy-Ferriday House in Bethlehem, Connecticut – see a typewriter next to her desk which serves as a reminder of her lifelong correspondence with her international friends and her letters to various newspapers and officials that helped keep alive an interest in the plight of the Ravensbrück “Ladies,” formerly known as the Ravensbrück “Rabbits.”
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The story of the Ravenbrück “Rabbits” has never been widely told, but now, a new novel called Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly describes their incredible journey, which spanned from the concentration camp to the United States, where a well-known philanthropist and socialite named Caroline Woolsey Ferriday would help them recover from their horrific injuries.