Born in Vienna on 2 October 1917, Irma Trksak was the second of four children born to working-class Slovakian parents who had left their homeland for the stronger economy and better employment options of Austria. Trksak’s mother was a housewife who took care of the children and her father was a factory worker. With barely enough money to get by, the family of six was crowded into a one-room apartment, but these difficult times only strengthened her father’s commitment to socialism; he was an avowed free-thinker, imbuing his children with a strong belief in humanity, solidarity and social justice. His politics had a strong influence on his daughter.
He also valued education highly, and despite the family’s poverty all four children attended school, enabling Trksak to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. She found her first teaching job not in Austria but in Prague, where she studied for her teaching certificate; during her childhood she and her siblings had vacationed in Bohemia and Slovakia, and she developed a strong sense of connection to the area. After her time in Prague, she returned to her parents in Vienna, where she attained teaching positions at Czech and Slovakian-language schools. This work lasted until the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, at which point the schools were closed. This was the moment when Trksak was confronted for the first time with the racism at the core of the Nazi ideology. Although she identified herself above all as an Austrian (albeit with a Czech and Slovak heart), according to the Nazis her blood made her a Slav. As she put it,
'So right in third place after the Jews and the Gypsies we came, the Slavs. We had no German blood in our veins, we were worthless, we were judged in accordance with that which Hitler had written in Mein Kampf.'
Rather than weakening her sense of allegiance to her ethnic homeland, the experience of Nazi racism strengthened these ties. In 1940 she enrolled at university in order to major in Slavic studies, and she maintained her ties to Slavic community and cultural heritage groups.
Since childhood, Trksak had been involved in Czech cultural, theatre and music groups and as a youth she had publicly performed with a singing group and competed in a left-wing gymnastics club. When that club was shut down by the Nazis, the Czech members created a separate gymnastics club, which eventually came to function as camouflage for anti-Nazi resistance. The young members committed many acts of resistance, anti-Nazi propaganda and sabotage: for instance, using a hidden copying machine, they printed and distributed pamphlets criticising the Nazis and flyers encouraging young Austrian men to refuse to serve in the German army. They even successfully carried out attacks on German storage facilities where armaments were stockpiled. Their luck soon ran out, however, and in the autumn of 1941 someone betrayed them.
On 29 September, Trksak was arrested by the Gestapo, tried, and sentenced to one year in solitary confinement. This tormenting time ended when she was moved in with another political prisoner. Trksak recalled that, at this time,
'Singing was for me—I would say always—life-saving. It was a part of my nature, it always and in every situation helped me, to sing.'
At the beginning of October 1942, she was sent along with a dozen other Czech women to Ravensbrück. There, after an initial period of quarantine, she was assigned to a series of exhausting and pointless physical jobs, like moving stones. By a stroke of luck, she was moved early on to an ‘elite’ block, where political prisoners were kept. Women had cots to themselves, their own blankets and slightly more room. They also, significantly, had a sympathetic and Czech-speaking block leader. Trksak managed to secure a vastly better work assignment; after passing a co-ordination test, she was assigned to the conveyer belt at the Siemens factory. After a few weeks, she was promoted to Secretary and Translator (she spoke five languages: German, Russian, French, Czech and Slovakian).
Trksak’s camp experience convinced her that music was a valuable way of preserving sanity and heart. She developed connections to an informal group of Czech women that included many professional artists. These women composed, rehearsed and performed music and theatre pieces. Trksak also briefly joined Vera Hozakova in a Czech choir; with them, she remembers singing works by Slavic composers like Dvořák and Smetana. She was also involved with a singing group made up of Austrian and German women. They practised on Sunday mornings, usually in a corner of a barracks or behind a block, so as to not be discovered by the guards. Unlike the more highly trained Czech group, the German-Austrian group was less professional, singing primarily Austrian folk songs and Viennese hits for their own enjoyment.
In late 1944, the SS erected a new set of barracks for the workers at Siemens. A friend of Trksak’s managed to get her appointed as the block elder in one of these new barracks, which ensured a marked improvement in her quality of life in the camp. The women under her charge were Russian, French, Polish, Norwegian and other nationalities, and many were connected by their shared experiences in the opposition. Trksak actively encouraged them to sing together and put on shows. There was, however, a spy in her group, and Trksak was betrayed. As punishment, she was removed from her ‘privileged’ position and transferred to the small camp Uckermark.
As harsh as her experience in Ravensbrück had been, it could not compare to the ‘inferno’ of Uckermark. There,
'We did not have the nerves to sing, there the only thing that mattered was saving human lives, warning them, hiding them. That was the only task then, at the end.'
After several harsh months, on 29 April 1945 she was sent on an evacuation march, miraculously managing to flee on the very first night together with several other women. In a stroke of luck, they met a Russian soldier who gave them the necessary identification papers, and by the end of May 1945 they had reached a destroyed Vienna.
Trksak’s difficulties, however, did not end with her return home. Although she found both her parents and sister alive, both brothers had perished, one in a camp and the other at the front. Her boyfriend had died in Mauthausen. Trksak’s mother was devastated by her many losses, and chose to ignore the painful past, refusing to talk to her daughter about her experiences. The fact that few were interested in Trksak’s story of suffering was one of the motivations for the formation of the group for survivors of Ravensbrück. Soon after the end of the war, her parents and sister decided to return to Slovakia, but Trksak chose to stay in Austria. Although she retained her political connections to the Communist Party after the war, she grew increasingly critical of corruption and deception at higher party levels. Because she insisted on speaking openly, she herself came under criticism, receiving a reprimand, and finally leaving the party in 1968. She also gradually lost the friendship of several Ravensbrück women who had remained faithful to communism.
Despite these difficulties, she managed to raise a son as a single mother. She also became an active member of the Ravensbrück group and spent time talking to youth groups about her experiences in the camp. In addition to her educational work, Irma Trksak has been selected for numerous German and Austrian awards and prizes, and has been interviewed and showcased in movies and books about women resistance fighters and survivors of Ravensbrück.
Knapp, G., 2003. Frauenstimmen: Musikerinnen erinnern an Ravensbrueck, Berlin: Metropol-Verlag.