Isa Vermehren was born in the north German port city of Lübeck in 1918 into a well-respected Protestant family. Her intellectual and humanist parents raised her to pursue her multiple talents, their own musical abilities reflected in the musicality of their only daughter.
Given her liberal background, it is perhaps not surprising that Vermehren ran into trouble with the Nazis early on. Already in 1933 she was disciplined for disobedience to what she perceived as a ‘spiritual dictatorship’. After refusing to offer the Hitler greeting to the flag out of sympathy for a Jewish schoolmate prohibited from making the gesture, she was promptly expelled from high school. At this point Vermehren’s mother decided to move to Berlin, where liberal viewpoints and a cosmopolitan atmosphere were still to be found. Isa accompanied her, hoping to help support her family through musical performances. She was only able to stage two public concerts, however, neither of which brought in much money. At the recommendation of a friend, she decided to pursue cabaret instead, and was soon cast in one of the most prestigious cabarets in Germany, Werner Finck’s ‘Katakombe’. Her first performance in the winter of 1933 was an instant hit, as this newspaper report suggests:
Werner Finck has a new discovery, called Hanna Dose on the programme, but actually named Isa Vermehren. She sings songs to accordion, sailor songs, with a relaxed air and excellent voice that springs around in two registers in the wildest of leaps, a specialty that bowls you over.
Vermehren was soon a fixture in the theatre world, and was also cast in several well-received movies of the early- and mid-1930s. Her signature song was a satiric ditty called ‘A sea cruise, that's fun, a sea cruise, that's lovely’; with its subtle mockery of Nazi officials, its catchy melody and entertaining singer, it became a hit. Looking back, Vermehren reflected that she received her best education on the cabaret stage, through the critical political humour of the ‘Katakombe’.
This critical humor did not escape the notice of the Nazis, however. Goebbels had been keeping an eye on the cabaret for years, and on 10 May 1935 it was suddenly shut down. Werner Finck was arrested and sent to Esterwegen. Vermehren continued her performing career for a while, but in 1936 decided temporarily to return to school to complete her interrupted studies (she received a diploma in 1939). While studying, she came into contact with other young people who were opposed to the Nazis; for the first time she also met devout Catholics, as one of her brothers married into a religious family. Impressed by their conviction and full of religious faith, she converted in 1938.
Through the Red Cross, Vermehren volunteered to support the German troops as an entertainer, and between 1940 and 1943 she was seen on various European stages. Later she founded her own ensemble along with two other women, singing emotional songs, putting on dances in rococo costumes, and performing skits that were dramatically different from the typical optimistic and aggressive music being promoted on the Front. The time she spent performing for soldiers gave Vermehren a sense of the scale of Nazi destruction, and the extent of troop demoralization.
In early 1944, her brother Erich defected to Britain through Cairo. The entire Vermehren family was arrested in retaliation: Isa’s parents and younger brother Michael were sent to Sachsenhausen, and she was taken to the Ravensbrück prison, where she was locked in an isolation cell. She comforted herself with frequent prayer, and she and her fellow inmates often sang to each other through their small windows. She was also forced to give private concerts for Nazi prison officials. At the end of 1944 she was demoted to ‘regular’ prisoner status, and was for the first time shaved and clad in prisoner clothing. Although her quality of life deteriorated, she was also able to build stronger relations with other female prisoners, and to participate in cultural events.
Convinced of the emotional power of music, Vermehren tried to comfort and inspire her fellow prisoners through her singing. She frequently sang the political song ‘Die Gedanken sind Frei’ (Thoughts are Free), both in spontaneous group sing-alongs and in more formal concerts. Although aware of the positive impact music could have on the camp atmosphere, however, her musical memories of Ravensbrück were more negative than positive. When asked in a post-war interview about the topic, she replied:
Music in the camp? Sometimes you could hear the women singing when they left the camp for work; but they had such raw, hard and lifeless, such exhausted voices, with which they sang their horrible marching songs – I always thought that could really be music from hell, it sounded so horrible.
At the beginning of 1945 she was removed from camp and placed back in the prison. From there, she was sent through several prisons to Buchenwald, after which she was transferred to Dachau in mid-April. The Americans liberated the camp less than three weeks later, and she and a group of German prisoners were taken to Capri, then Paris, to be interrogated by the Allied forces.
Vermehren was finally allowed to return to her family in Hamburg in June 1945. Her father encouraged her to write down her experiences, which were published in 1946 under the title A Journey through the Final Act: Ravensbrück, Buchenwald, Dachau: A Woman Reports. This was one of the first books published in post-war Germany and became a best-seller. It was also quite controversial, as Vermehren insisted on defending the humanity of her guards. In addition, her position of ‘privilege’ within the camp hierarchy, and her relatively good treatment for most of her imprisonment, meant that her experience of camp life differed dramatically from that of the majority of camp survivors.
After the war, Vermehren was able to continue her education, and between 1946 and 1951 she studied German and English in preparation for becoming a teacher. While at university in Hamburg she supported herself through occasional cabaret appearances and small film roles. Having completed her studies, on 15 September 1951 she officially joined a convent, and began a successful career as a teacher, public speaker, and school director. In 1983 she was selected to be a host for the German TV show ‘The Word on Sunday’. Through the success of the show, which ran for longer than a decade, she became familiar again to a generation that might have remembered her as a teenage singer and comedienne. In recognition of her contribution to education in post-war West Germany, she received numerous honours and awards, and had a biography written about her by Matthias Wegne, entitled Ein Breites Herz (A Wide Heart).
Knapp, G., 2003. Frauenstimmen: Musikerinnen erinnern an Ravensbrueck, Berlin: Metropol-Verlag.
Rhode-Juechtern, A. & Kublitz-Kramer, M. eds., 2004. Echolos: Klangwelten verfolgter Musikerinnen in der NS-Zeit, Bielefeld: Aisthesis-Verlag.