Ludmilla Peskarova (née Kadlecova) was born on 4 February 1890 in the region of Moravia, Czechoslovakia. Raised in a liberal, artistic family, Kadlecova pursued an education in music and became a music teacher. In 1921 she married Jan Peskar, changing her surname to Peskarova (the feminine version of her husband’s name). Her husband was a great lover of music and the arts, and was himself an amateur composer, novelist, and poet. He was also an accomplished cellist, and the two often performed together – Ludmilla had an excellent singing voice. They had two children: a daughter, who died as a child; and a son, Ivan, born in 1929.
In 1939 the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, a particularly devastating blow to liberal nationalists like the Peskarovs. In 1941 Jan joined an illegal underground resistance movement. Ludmilla herself was also probably involved, though no details of her political activity are known. In 1942 Jan was arrested – accused of being a liaison for underground organizations – and held in a local prison, where he was killed later that year. A few months later, in May 1943, Ludmilla herself was arrested by the Gestapo for hanging up black flags in memory of her husband, which was seen as a gesture of resistance.
First sent to a local prison where she shared a cell with 22 other women, she was soon deported to the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück. At that time she was already 53 years old. Both in prison and during her time at Ravensbrück, Peskarova sang, composed, and performed songs alone as well as with other women inmates. She and fellow prisoners sometimes gathered secretly, when the guards were not nearby, to sing nationalistic songs. Peskarova also began composing for the first time while in jail – she claimed that she began writing songs so that she would have documents of her experiences for when she ‘returned out of this hell.’ After liberation, she reflected that she only retained her mental strength and sanity by memorizing and performing her compositions for other women prisoners.
Peskarova’s compositions are a mixture of entirely new pieces, and songs consisting of new texts set to old melodies. In both cases her music distinctively evokes her homeland region of Moravia. In her earlier works especially she drew directly from Czech composers such as Dvorak and Smetana. Her first song, for example, was a modified version of Dvorak’s Biblical Song op. 99 no. 7, which told the story of the suffering of the Jews under the Babylonians. Peskarova continued to compose while in Ravensbrück, becoming particularly productive as the situation worsened for the Nazis in early 1945. In March of that year, Allied airplanes circled over the camp on an almost daily basis – the inmates assumed, correctly, that the Nazi regime was finally losing to the Allied powers. Several of Peskarova’s songs written during these weeks refer to the longed-for collapse of the regime.
On 28 April 1945, Peskarova was forced to join a death march from Ravensbrück. Two days later, however, she fled and made her way to safety with the Red Cross. Six months later she returned to Prague, and later moved to the city of Rajhrad. Here she wrote down her compositions for the first time, and continued to sing her songs from Ravensbrück. Despite recurrent health problems in subsequent years – a direct result of her extreme physical suffering at Ravensbrück – Peskarova was active in left-wing associations, and in publicizing what had happened at Ravensbruck, until her death on 22 June 1987.
Knapp, G. (2003). Frauenstimmen: Musikerinnen erinnern an Ravensbrueck. Berlin, Metropol-Verlag.
Füllberg-Stolberg, C., M. Jung, et al., Eds. (1994). Frauen in Konzentrationslagern: Bergen-Belsen Ravensbrück. Bremen, Edition Temmen.