(Vienna 1920 – Vienna 2020): Resistance fighter
“What can be said about this life? It is impossible to even begin” (Elfriede Jelinek).
Lotte Brainin (née Sontag) was an important advocate of remembrance for the Ravensbrück and Auschwitz camp communities and in Austrian public life, and a dedicated contemporary eyewitness in conversations with schoolchildren. Her own experience was one shared by many in present times: she was the last born of a refugee family. Her Jewish family fled from Lemberg in Galicia (today Lviv, Ukraine) to Vienna during the First World War to escape the much-feared Russian troops.
Poverty, cramped living conditions, eviction, parental tension and divorce were as much a feature of her upbringing as her family’s political involvement, first in the Social Democratic Party and later the Communist Party. Even as a teenager her illegal anti-Fascist activities brought her into conflict with the law during the Austrofascist era and she was repeatedly imprisoned. Jewishness did not seem so important to her, but she could not ignore Antisemitism.
Austria became extremely dangerous during the Nazi era, causing her to flee to Belgium. Sie posed as a Belgian. Her activities for the resistance in German-occupied Belgium put her at great risk; her Jewish origins, if revealed, would have endangered her still further. Like other young women in the Resistance, she was used for what was downplayed as Mädlarbeit (“girls’ work”), an extremely dangerous activity: the young women tried to gain the trust of members of the Wehrmacht and persuade them to distribute anti-Fascist writings among their colleagues, steal weapons for the resistance group or even to desert.
One of these soldiers reported her, and the German military police arrested her in June 1943.
Interrogations carried out under torture by the military police and the Gestapo were intended to break her will; they did not. Her friend, who was also arrested, succumbed however and so her Viennese Jewish identity came to light. In the SS transit camp Mecheln (Malines) she was reunited with her mother, with whom she had been in Belgium. There they had their last conversations; her mother was murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp immediately upon arrival.
Lotte Brainin was deported to Auschwitz in January 1944. At Auschwitz she sought and made contact with the resistance group and used her forced labour assignment as an inspector in a munitions factory to carry out acts of sabotage in consort with other women. For example, explosive powder was smuggled out of the munitions factory for the armed uprising of the inmates’ Sonderkommando and used to blow up Crematorium IV on 7 October 1944. Four women, Ala Gertner, Regina Safirsztajn, Rózia Robota and Ester Wajcblum were executed for the offence on the roll call area on 6 January 1945. They did not betray their co-conspirators despite being subjected to weeks of torture, saving their lives.
Lotte Brainin was transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp in the course of the evacuation of Auschwitz, where she came into conflict with the leader of the resistance movement. Members of the resistance did not always act in solidarity; they sometimes acted in competition with another. To punish her, the leader of the resistance saw to it that she was transferred to a subcamp of Ravensbrück, the Uckermark concentration camp.
Her return to Vienna was demoralising, she was met with a lack of understanding. Her love for Hugo Brainin must have given her strength, as did her work for the Communist Party, for which she had been risking her life for years. In the 1960s, she and her husband left their political home. “I hadn’t overcome anything. I just dreamed and the dreams destroyed my life,” is one of the harrowing lines from one of her interviews about the persistence of the psychological trauma.
She had to use an enormous amount of her life force just to create stability in her life. This was a step-by-step process, one of which was appearing as an eyewitness in a school. She said she felt like a “taxidermied animal, because it is a sheer coincidence that I am alive at all.” Despite this, or because of it, she managed to retain her feistiness and remain a beacon of hope.
Video greetings from Elfriede Jelinek on the 100th birthday of Lotte Brainin in 2020: https://www.brainin.at/lotte/video.html, (27.04.2023)
Tina Leisch, Das Salz unseres Brotes. Lotte Brainin zum Neunzigsten, in: Mitteilungsblatt der österreichischen Lagergemeinschaft Ravensbrück & FreundInnen, December 2010, p. 17–19.
Marika Schmiedt, Lotte Brainin. Eine Heldin des jüdischen Widerstands. Eine virtuelle Ausstellung über das Leben der Wiener Widerstandskämpferin und Shoah-Überlebenden Lotte Brainin zum 100. Geburtstag, 2020: https://www.brainin.at/ (28.12.2020)