Vera Hozakova led a life defined by commitment and idealism. She was born Vera Fialova on 28 October 1917 in Hradec Králové, Bohemia. As a child, she was an enthusiastic member of the nationalist youth group the Pathfinders, where she particularly enjoyed the singing of Czech folk songs. She met her future husband, Bedrich Hozak, at a nationalistic gymnastics club that they both frequented. Having completed high school, she worked towards a diploma while employed in the traditionally all-male sphere of a building site. After completing the programme, she moved in 1937 to Prague to study architecture at the university. There, following her father’s example, she became active in leftist student organisations and joined the Communist Party after the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in September 1938. By March 1939, the Germans had reached Prague and the Communist Party was promptly banned. The following month Czech students, including Hozakova, organised a massive protest, and the Germans cracked down brutally, shooting into the crowd and killing a student. On 17 November, the police, increasingly fearful of the power of the Czech student movement, took over the student apartments of Prague and sent 1,200 male students to Sachsenhausen. In addition, they formally closed the university for three years.
At this point, Hozakova was forced to abandon her studies and seek a full-time job. She found a position as a technical illustrator, a job that allowed her to begin resistance work with the Communist Party. Primarily serving as a courier and contact person, Hozakova managed to conceal her illegal activities until July 1941, when she was arrested and imprisoned in Prague for six months.
Even while enduring the misery of prison, Hozakova retained her political consciousness. She exchanged information and support with like-minded political prisoners and also made a habit of singing with her friends –- primarily songs from the Czech theatre –- while they were engaged in humiliating work.
Bad as life in jail was, it paled in comparison with life in the concentration camp Ravensbrück, where Hozakova was transferred in January 1942 along with a group of other Czech political prisoners. Upon arrival they were assigned to the primarily Czech Block 8, at the time holding around 900 prisoners. (As the camp was to grow increasingly crowded over the years, this number increased exponentially). Her first two years were spent in back-breaking physical labour, shovelling frozen sand, digging ditches and transporting cement. Although her previous experience of work on a construction site came in handy, eventually the work took a toll on her health, and it was only through the intervention of some Czech friends in the infirmary that she was granted a period of sick leave and managed to regain her strength.
In the summer of 1943, the SS let it be known that they were looking for technical illustrators and Hozakova successfully applied. The change in her circumstances when she was transferred from her regular work detail to the engineering office was both a relief and deeply upsetting. She wrote in her memoirs:
How much easier our life is now in contrast to that of the thousands outside our door. For the entire day we are placed in a different world ... in the quiet, the warmth, doing skilled labour, far from the over-filled barracks, the screaming, the fear...
Not only was the work physically and intellectually an unimaginable improvement, but she was also moved to Block 3, where prisoners who came into contact with the SS were kept. Clean, and with running water, this block dramatically changed her experience of the camp. However, her improvement in circumstances only strengthened her commitment to help other, less 'privileged' prisoners. In this sense, her job brought her several advantages. Occasionally she would be able to surreptitiously listen to the radio and could pass on news. She also had access to books and paper, which was a valuable commodity.
Throughout her time in the camp, Hozakova wrote poems and songs, motivated by a belief that 'no one can ever take from us the beauty of the word'. She managed to make two little booklets: the first was a collection of satirical poems and cabaret songs, the second a humorous cookbook. In the autumn of 1941, Anna Kvapilová, who before the war had worked in the music department of the Prague library, was brought to Ravensbrück. She organised and began conducting a Czech choir that comprised twelve women; using scores smuggled into the camp by a friend, she led the choir in Czech and Slovakian songs, especially those of Smetana and Dvořák. Hozakova was an enthusiastic member, practising whenever she could, be it under her breath at roll call, or with a friend behind the barracks during a rare free moment.
The Czech choir was highly regarded. Although generally unable to put on formal concerts, it would occasionally put on impromptu shows on Sundays, singing for a small group of women while a few prisoners kept watch. There were also some more formal performances. The most successful was the 1944 performance of Karel Hynek Mácha’s play May. An elaborate production that involved the help of many talented and artistic prisoners, including the professional dancer and choreographer Nina Jirsiková, and a former music professor from Prague, the show was performed on 30 April 1944, in celebration of 1 May. All prisoners who could understand Czech were invited to attend. It was an enormous hit with the audience, partly because several of the songs were composed over passages from the Czech national hymn.
This was to be the last spring these women would spend in Ravensbrück. Throughout April 1945, tensions had been building in camp, and at the end of the month, the German soldiers began to evacuate groups of women. Hozakova, determined not to leave a close friend who was in the infirmary and temporarily unable to walk, hid herself from the guards. She cared for her friend and other sick inmates, a chore that continued even after the Soviets had liberated the camp. For several weeks, there remained a lack of supplies and hygiene essentials and women continued to die. At the end of May, after a month tending to the ill, Hozakova set off for Prague. There, she continued her studies in architecture, graduating and marrying her childhood sweetheart in 1947.
Although working successfully as a technical engineer and receiving a post as professor at the university, Hozakova grew more dissatisfied with her situation. As Soviet rule became increasingly repressive, and, in particular, as many Czech resistance fighters began to be persecuted, arrested and even executed, she gradually lost her faith in communist ideals. Outraged by what she perceived as a betrayal, she began to openly criticise the regime in the late 1950s. The turning point came in the Prague Spring of 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded Prague to suppress the student resistance movement. A vocal protester, Hozakova was promptly and severely punished. First expelled from the Communist Party, which she had first joined in 1939, she was then fired from her job and prohibited from teaching again, or from publicly speaking about her time under the Nazis. Still needing to support her three children, Hozakova spent several years as a house cleaner and labourer until she finally retired in 1972.
Her memoirs, which she wrote in 1977, have been published in Czechoslovakia and in Germany. She was also one of the eight women highlighted in a German movie about women in the concentration camps, titled Das Gedächtnis der Frauen (The Memory of Women).
Knapp, G., 2003. Frauenstimmen: Musikerinnen erinnern an Ravensbrueck, Berlin: Metropol-Verlag.