WHen a book literally changes
(this blog was originally posted in 2018)
We all believe in the power of education and of reading. We advocate for girls to have equal access to education and tout the many ways books open up the world. We casually say that books can change the world to inspire the next generation to keep reading!
But what about us? Adult, literate, book lovers? Do we still believe books are magical and powerful? Can they still change and enrich our lives?
Here is my own story of how a book has literally changed my life and brought me full circle back to a place and experience in my life I thought was long in the past…
RAVENSBRück Concentration camp
My husband and I moved to Berlin, Germany in early 2005 for a project with his company. One sunny April morning, we borrowed a car from work and decided to take a country drive outside Berlin. No agenda. No destination. Just doing what we love to do… wind through new and meandering country roads. We ended up in a town called Fürstenburg about an hour north of Berlin. It was a picturesque German town on a lake, historically a spa town Germans would relax and vacation at. As we drove out of town, we rounded a corner and saw tons of police cars on the sides of the road and a sign that said RAVENSBRÜCK.
Ravensbrück, the notorious largest all-women concentration camp in the Third Reich. I had just finished reading Corrie ten Boom’s memoir, The Hiding Place, about a week earlier. She and her sister, Betsy, were prisoners at Ravensbrück for hiding Jews in their home in Holland. Corrie's writing was so detailed and vivid of their time in this particular camp. I felt like I could close my eyes and see how it was back then.
We could tell there was some sort of event going on and after asking around, we found out it was the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. We just so happened to stumble into this camp on one of the most significant commemorations of the camp.
On 16 and 17 April 2005, a ceremony was held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation. Among those invited were approximately 600 survivors from all over the world, mostly eastern Europe. At the same time a new, permanent outdoor exhibition was opened, on the theme of the train transports to Ravensbrück. Its central exhibit is a refurbished goods wagon. The exhibition's information boards describe the origins of the transports and how they developed over time, and explain the different types of trains, where they arrived, and the part played by the local residents. It is probably the only exhibition so far at a German memorial which is dedicated solely to the subject of the transports to the camp. (source)
Over 600 survivors from all over the world, and many of their family members came back to the camp, many of them meeting for the first time since liberation in 1945. I would have given my right arm to have had a translator with me. Most of the people were speaking in Polish, German and other eastern european languages. Clusters formed with smiles and laughter and also tears and long hugs. Red carnations were left in precarious places throughout the camp as remembrances of friends or family lost.
Words fail me to express how impactful this experience was for me. Suffice it to say, I knew in my soul that there was a reason I just “happened” on this place on that particular day. I just didn’t know why.
fast forward 13 years
I had seen the book Lilac Girls on a variety of book lists. One day I stopped at a local friend’s house and saw it sitting on her table. She loaned it to me on the spot. (She is a librarian, by the way… very fortuitous)
I didn’t start reading it until January (2018). I knew it was set in WWII era but did not know what exactly it was about. As I often do, I flipped to the back of the book to check out who the author was. While doing this, I saw a number of photos at the back of the book. Photos of Ravensbrück. Some of the same exact photos I had taken in 2005. The author, Martha Hall Kelly, had returned to Ravensbrück 10 years after I was there, for the 70th anniversary commemoration.
After learning that the story was going to be about the “Rabbits of Ravensbrück” (the group of Polish women the Nazi’s did torturous medical experiments on), naturally I devoured it. For anyone who hasn’t read the book, please run to your nearest bookstore or library and snag it.
I would have loved the book with or without the Ravensbrück component, but because I has this deep, personal connection to that particular camp, I was even more moved by the story. I searched for the author online and sent her an email telling her about my own experience at Ravensbrück and telling her how much I enjoyed the book.
While researching the author, I discovered that there was a filmmaker, Stacey Fitzgerald, who was in the process of making a documentary about the Rabbits of Ravensbrück. It looks fantastic! I reached out to Stacey as well and told her how excited I was to find out about this project and that I would like to support her work in any way I could… financially or otherwise. I made an offhand comment that if she ever needed photography work (still images for marketing, promotions, documentation etc.) that I would love to support the project in that way.
We struck up a conversation via email and before I knew it, we were discussing her need for both documentary and portrait photography to help share the vision and mission of the film, as well as capture the beauty and strength of the women she was interviewing… survivors of Ravensbrück in their 80’s and 90’s. I volunteered my time and photography on the spot.
And here I am… planning to travel with the team this April (2018) on their last trip to Europe to capture the remaining interviews and various shots for the film. With stops in Paris, Warsaw and Krakow to interview some of the surviving Rabbits, as well as members of the Polish and French resistance who were in the camp with the Rabbits and helped them escape execution.
But the most meaningful stop? Another trip to Ravensbrück for the 73rd commemoration of the camp's liberation.
And there it is…. the full-circle reason I “accidentally” visited Ravensbrück 13 years ago.
This film, Saving the Rabbits of Ravensbrück, is so timely. It is the extraordinary tale of how thousands of women at the camp plotted and executed one of the larger scale escapes in Nazi camp history. Women from 20 different nationalities, different religions (Jewish, Protestant, Catholic) worked together to rescue a vulnerable group of 63 Polish women who had been horrifically tortured through medical experiments. It is a story about courage, resistance, resilience and what is possible when women link arms and work together for the good of another.
This extraordinary chapter of my own life journey would never happen without picking up that book and then following my intuition and reaching out to both Martha and Stacey.
I wonder.... what is the next life changing book in my future?! What is in yours?
I originally shared this blog post in early 2018. Stay tuned for follow up posts about my extraordinary experience traveling with the documentary team and meeting, photographing and interviewing these heroic women. I can't wait to share more. Meanwhile, please follow the links below to keep tabs on the film's progress and release.