A lifetime leftist, teacher, and music-lover, Käte Ostermai spent just over a year in Ravensbrück; her experiences there were to cement both her political convictions and her belief in the power of music. Ostermai was born on 11 May 1913 in the Saxon town of Colditz. As a child she was drawn to music, playing piano and violin by ear, and taking several music classes. She dreamed of becoming an opera singer, but her family’s financial situation –- worsened after her father was fired for membership of the Communist Party -- made this impossible. Her parents were also conservative in their views on women’s employment and preferred that she be trained in more practical skills such as sewing, cooking and cleaning. Chafing at the restrictive environment of her parents’ home, Ostermai left in 1939 for the town of Gera, where she found a job as an office assistant and saleswoman at the musical supplies and recordings department of a large piano company.
Once the war had begun, however, the company’s director was drafted into the army and its profit margins sank steadily. Sales were declining, and Ostermai’s weekly pay was barely enough on which to survive. In 1943 she moved to Weimar for a better-paying job at Daimler-Benz, which was when, she later said, 'the whole disaster began'. While working at Daimler-Benz, Ostermai for the first time came into contact with large numbers of forced labourers from Poland and France. Although she restricted her conversations with them to business matters, company spies denounced her for having ‘excessive relations’ with them. These accusations were probably rooted in her refusal to join any Nazi organisation: 'I’m never going to do that', she said, 'because I’m against the war'. Arrested on 10 March 1944 for being ‘politically unreliable’, she was first sent to the work camp Breitenau, and after a few months was transferred to Ravensbrück, where she wore the red triangle of a political prisoner. After working at several different positions in the camp, she was employed in the office of the SS construction branch. While there she befriended several Czech artists, occasionally helping them to smuggle their small picture books into the camp.
One of Ostermai’s most powerful memories of Ravensbrück was her first Christmas. By the end of 1944, the camp housed about 500 children from eighteen different countries, most of whom had arrived with their mothers and had been integrated into the camp in the same way as the adult prisoners, with numbers and work assigned to them. Shortly after her liberation, Ostermai described the tragic impression these children made on her:
Paltry is their clothing, joyless is their life in the camp. They don’t know the world outside of the walls, many were even born in the camp. They don’t enjoy the golden years of childhood – they only know misery and need.
Several women were deeply moved by the sorrow of these children’s lives, and decided to put on a Christmas show for them. Ostermai was responsible for gathering donations in the form of ration cards; Block 2 had somehow acquired an accordion, and she accompanied several women who sang as they toured the barracks where German prisoners were kept. The format was a so-called ‘wish concert’: a prisoner would make a special request for a song (usually a popular hit song of the day), and in exchange would donate something to the festival, ranging from a piece of bread to an apple or even a sweet from a care package. The concert began on the afternoon of 23 December 1944. A small choir performed ‘O Tannenbaum’, and a puppet show for the children followed. Remarkably, the SS tolerated this activity, even giving permission for the women to use Block 22. Ostermai believes that they had already realised the war was coming to an end and this was why the atmosphere at the camp was more relaxed.
As Russian troops drew nearer in the spring of 1945, discipline fell away, routines were disrupted, and prisoners were regularly evacuated from Ravensbrück. Ostermai was sent away with the last evacuation march, a group of about 50 women accompanied by eleven guards. She managed to flee, leaping onto a truck of soldiers that was passing by, and travelled by foot, train, coach and bicycle in the direction of Colditz, receiving help along the way from other escaped prisoners, farmers and Russian soldiers. One night, at an inn near Wittenberg, she spent the night in a hall filled with other refugees. Someone asked if she knew how to play the piano, and by candlelight she entertained her fellows with hits of the pre-war years.
On 14 July 1945 she reached Colditz, where she began working at a temporary care station for the many sick and injured refugees who had ended up in the area. To cheer up these sickly men and women, Ostermai again turned to music. Taking up her small accordion, she made the rounds of the rooms, singing folk songs and popular melodies.
Her experiences under the Nazi regime having solidified her political commitment, Ostermai became an active communist in post-war East Germany. She wrote her memoirs and was extremely active in the women’s political scene. She also received several awards from the East German state for her work and political engagement as a teacher. She took her school classes to old people’s homes and hospitals, where they sang to comfort and distract the elderly and infirm. She died in Leipzig in February 2003, firm in her belief that 'above all other things, you have to fight for human dignity'.
Knapp, G., 2003. Frauenstimmen: Musikerinnen erinnern an Ravensbrueck, Berlin: Metropol-Verlag.