“I’m glad I got away from the Germans and I’m grateful to the Swedes that I’m alive and that they have taken such good care of me.” These are the concluding words of a woman’s account of her years in a concentration camp. The rest of her story, and those of 515 others, can be read in Voices from Ravensbrück, one of the University Library’s most renowned archives, the work on which has now been recognised by the Polish-Scandinavian Research Institute.
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Powerful testimonies in unique archive
During the Second World War, a Polish lecturer at Lund University, Zygmunt Łakociński, gathered information about the German assault on Poland.
When the white buses full of concentration camp survivors came to Sweden in the spring of 1945 he also took the initiative to the victims. In total, around 500 Polish survivors were ed about their experiences in the camps, resulting in a unique collection of testimonies which were later used in the trials against the Nazis. In order to keep the material safe in the uncertain post-war years, they were deposited at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University until 1974, when they were returned to Lund in accordance with the wish of Łakociński. They then stood unopened in the basement of the University Library (UB) for another 25 years.
In 1996 the staff finally got to open the boxes. Birgitta Lindholm is head of the manuscript department at UB and managed the project.
“Because the material was classified we didn’t really know what the boxes contained”, she explains.
When the staff, with the help of some Polish speakers, were able to read and understand the testimonies and realised what they actually were, Birgitta Lindholm understood that this was something that required good care. With the approval of the senior librarian at UB she began her work. The first thing she did was to take copies of everything to ensure nothing was lost in the turmoil.
“When we opened the material, there were a lot of people who wanted to access it. We were contacted by a number of people from abroad and many also came to UB to see it”, says Birgitta Lindholm.
UB appointed a reference group including Polish-speaking historians and representatives of the Regional Archives and Kulturen. She says that everything was higgledy-piggledy in the boxes. There were witness s mixed up with diaries, lists of prisoners, glasses, clothes, information signs and other items. Some of these artefacts are now on display in Kulturen’s exhibition, ‘Surviving’. The working group’s focus was therefore on cataloguing all the material. Then began the work of translating the testimonies, which were all in Polish. So far around 40 of the 514 s have been translated.
“We wanted to get a good distribution of aspects such as age and sex among the testimonies. We had two Polish-speaking librarians who made a selection for the translations. Reading the s was a difficult experience for them, as they had relatives who had been in the concentration camps. The testimonies are very detailed and powerful”, says Birgitta Lindholm.
The translated s were then published on a public website together with the rest of the testimonies. This work is still ongoing and interest in the archive is great. Every week Birgitta Lindholm and her colleagues get enquiries about the material, particularly from abroad. Many people want to use the material in exhibitions, essays and theses.
“It is one of our most renowned archives. We sometimes get contacted by descendants of concentration camp prisoners. Their relatives have not wanted to talk about their experiences of the war and the camps, and so many want to find out their history.”
One person who has used the material in his work is author and historian Artur Szulc. He found out about the archive when he was writing his Bachelor’s dissertation in History and his supervisor suggested it to him. Since then he has returned to the archive for a number of projects, including to use the testimonies and photos for two of the three books he has so far published on the Second World War era.
“I have had with Birgitta Lindholm over the years because I have used the testimonies in several books. She has done important work on the archive, which as far as I am aware is unique in Europe”, says Artur Szulc.
However, Artur Szulc thinks better use should be made of the archive than at present, and he is surprised that more researchers do not use the material.
“It’s a goldmine for Polish and other research and there is a lot to look at in the archive. For example, think how interesting it would be if someone were to study the material from a gender perspective.”
Wirginia Bogatic used Lakocinski’s archive in her thesis in History, entitled “The dilemma of exile – to stay or to return?”. It was on a trip to Poland that she, by chance, met women who had survived Ravensbrück and got the idea of writing about why some of the prisoners from the camp chose to stay in Sweden after the war, while others returned to their homeland.
“My professor told me that there was an archive in Lund where I could find information about the rescue operation and the reception in Sweden”, says Wirginia Bogatic.
After that, Wirginia Bogatic ed 13 female survivors in Sweden and Poland.
“In general, it emerged that the women who had been taken prisoner for political reasons, because they belonged to the resistance movement or suchlike, were more likely to return home than those who had been taken to Ravensbrück as forced labour. Perhaps they felt that they were needed in their country and that the struggle there would continue”, she says.
In November Birgitta Lindholm became the first Swede to be awarded a medal of honour by the Polish-Scandinavian Research Institute in Copenhagen for her work on the archive. Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, whose day job is as Professor of Central and Eastern European Studies at LU, is secretary of the institute. She says that every year they recognise people who have promoted the links between Poland and Scandinavia, but that only a few honoured people are awarded a medal.
“Birgitta has done important work on the archive and we want to show our appreciation for how she has promoted knowledge of life in the camps”, says Barbara Törnquist-Plewa.
For Birgitta Lindholm, the work on the archive is not over yet. She is currently planning how the reference group can proceed with the work. She believes, like Artur Szulc, that the archive could be used a lot more than it is today.
“We wish more of the s were translated. We want to translate more of them and make all the material searchable in databases. Personally, I’d like us to translate all the testimonies from teenagers – quite a lot of people aged 13–19 were ed. That seems worth highlighting.”
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