The Polish musician Katarzyna Mateja was imprisoned in a concentration camp for her patriotic resistance to the Nazi occupation. She was born Katarzyna Kawurek on 22 March 1920, and grew up in the lower Silesian village of Radzionkow. She enjoyed a happy childhood, and after completing her secondary education, sought employment as a secretary, eventually working in a law firm. After the outbreak of war she became active in resistance activity, and in October 1941, at the age of 21, she was arrested for aiding the Polish underground, and placed in the small camp Myslowice for six months.
On 25 April 1942, Mateja was moved to Ravensbrück as a political prisoner. At the beginning of her imprisonment, she was assigned to physically punishing and useless labour, and she fell into a deep depression. After several weeks, however, she was assigned to the tailoring department, a relatively ‘good’ work assignment as it was less physically demanding and was indoors. Despite the relative comfort of her position, violence still surrounded her: the head of the division was a man named Gustav Binder, about whom the prisoners sang the following refrain: “The worst slave driver [Leuteschinder] of them all will always be Gustav Binder”.
Mateja would often teach nationalistic songs to other Polish inmates. The pleasure and camaraderie that came out of singing together was one of the few positive memories she had of her time in the camp: 'With singing, everything can be said: the vast love we have for our land, our families and so much more'. She and some fellow prisoners would also occasionally write humorous songs about life in the camp.
Mateja was young and hungry to learn, and sought the company of older intellectuals amongst the Polish prisoners. In the winter of 1941, she organised a secret youth group named ‘Mury’, whose membership eventually numbered around 150 women. These women were sub-divided into seven smaller groups, where they communicated about the progress of the war, camp conditions, or simply private information about their families and their lives. During their meetings, the women would sing their national anthem or songs from their Polish youth groups. Indeed, one of the group’s primary objectives, in addition to easing the transition to camp life for new inmates, was to exchange and memorise folk songs. This helped to create a sense of shared community, and also had a practical goal: documentation. One inmate, for example, wrote a song about the group and its origins called ‘The March of the Mury’. Members memorised and sang the song together, at night in the barracks or marching to work. Due to the absence of paper and pencil, and the danger of having written materials discovered in their possession, inmates often composed music in this way to inform others and to remind themselves of important information.
By the spring of 1945, the group was slowly dissolving, as camp life grew increasingly chaotic, and prisoners were constantly being transferred to other camps. On 29 April 1945, Mateja was sent on one of the infamous death marches out of the camp; while struggling through the freezing countryside, she managed to hide in a forest. On 3 July 1945, after several months of travelling, she reached her home town. Such was the strength of the bonds that held those Polish prisoners together, that survivors of Mury still meet together every year to exchange information, pray together, and of course, to sing.
Knapp, G., 2003. Frauenstimmen: Musikerinnen erinnern an Ravensbrueck, Berlin: Metropol-Verlag.