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Poles were the largest group at Ravensbrück, the Nazi concentration camp for women, followed by Germans, Jews and Russians. The four national groups combined made for 3/4 of all the inmates. The remainder were women of over 15 nationalities, including Belgians, French, Italians, Czech, and even two Americans among others.

Jack Gaylord Morrison described the Flying University organized there in his book Ravensbrück: everyday life in a women’s concentration camp, 1939-45. However, he doesn’t seem to be aware that this kind of education provided there by Polish women was a part of a larger system. He also happens to think that the large number of Polish female teachers in the camp was a coincidence rather than a regular demographic pattern of the Polish resistance movement. In other words, he describes what he learnt about the particular courses there without knowing the larger background. Still, it’s a good example of the Flying University in action:

Educational Programs

“The eagerness with which women prisoners pursued culture and learning seems to have been almost as intense as their zeal to discuss food. Examples abound: Belgian prisoners had their own chorus, readings of literature, and even organized language courses. Almost all the other national groups acted similarly, frequently having readings or discussions of important works in their own language. As a group, the Communists do not seem to have been as culturally active as some others, but they had different priorities. They had discussions of Marxist theory, and for a time they held readings of War and Peace in their barracks.

“The learning of languages was pursued relentlessly. In nearly every barracks there was instruction in the German language, although this no doubt had as much to do with the survival instinct as with a love of learning. There was quite a lot of English instruction as well. In the elite blocks, where conditions were more conducive to learning, Gemma Gluck taught both a basic English course and an advanced conversation class. Rita Sprengel, who already knew English, French, and German and worked as an interpreter in the camp, took advantage of the opportunity and learned a fourth language, Russian. Textbooks and little dictionaries, all of them handwritten and small enough to be easily hidden during work, were passed around and copied hundreds of times. Eugenia Kocwa, who gave English lessons, wrote her own textbook on 80 sheets of toilet paper.

“In none of the blocks was education and learning pursued with more vigor than in the Polish blocks. Isa Vermehren, mercilessly objective when it came to discussing nationalities, including her fellow Germans (whom she mostly despised), judged that the Poles had an intellectual level unmatched by any other group in the camp. The fact that the earliest transports from Poland were composed of many teachers undoubtedly contributed to this. They set a tone and a standard which were never relinquished or surpassed.

“What distinguished the Polish educational effort from that of the other national groups was not only its scope and breadth, but also the fact that it was a system, not just a random offering of talks. Systems need organization and leadership, and this was provided early on by Helena Salska, an experienced educator, a Master (Magister) in history. Salska taught, but more important, she gave the program a sense of direction.

“Lists are generally boring, but take a quick look at the list of subject areas taught (and the wide range of instructors) in the Polish underground educational system:

  • Polish Language and Literature: Wińska, Bromowicz, Panakówna, Świebodzianka, Szartowska
  • Chemistry: Chorążna, Dydyńska
  • Physics: Tyrankiewicz, Sierakowska
  • Geography: Peretjatkowicz, Mazurek
  • Mathematics and Astronomy: Prof. Milewska, Modzelewska, Babińska-Dobrowolska
  • Anatomy: Dr. Mączka
  • European History: Salska
  • Cultural History, Education: Lanckorońska
  • Ancient History: Panenkowa
  • German Language: Karier-Westfalowa
  • French Language: Jordan, Krasicka
  • English Language: Kocwa
  • Latin: Madlerowa, Zawadzka

“The people who taught in these areas were well qualified, in many cases experienced teachers. In the winter of 1942, every morning between roll call and work call, a group of women met for half an hour in a corner of Block 15. There Urszula Wińska, a trained specialist in Polish studies, offered a course in Polish literature. At first, there were six participants, later twenty. Irena Panenkowa’s lecture on Socrates was so well received that she was asked to repeat it, and ended up giving it on five different occasions.

“Polish teachers conducted lessons from memory, sometimes using sticks and dirt in place of chalk and blackboards. They held discussions and study sessions. They granted no diplomas or degrees, but after the war Stanisława Czajkowska was given credit for her second, third, and fourth classes in the Gymnasium (college preparatory high school) for the academic work she did at Ravensbrück. More significantly, these programs helped to give the Polish women a feeling of camaraderie, a sense of purpose, and an awareness of their self-worth that was vital to their survival.”

Jack Gaylord Morrison, Ravensbruck: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939-45

I’ll add that it’s a very good book that everyone interested in Gender Studies and/or the history of Holocaust and WWII should read. Morrison describes women’s hell and the various ways in which they coped with it. While touching upon difficult subjects it’s nonetheless uplifting thanks to the detailed discussion of women’s activities. They were brave and resourceful.