Jochmann, Rosa (1901–1994)

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Jochmann, Rosa (1901–1994)

Leading Austrian official of the underground Social Democratic movement, who spent more than five years in German captivity and was active in Austrian public life after her liberation in 1945. Pronunciation: YOK-mahn or JAHCK-mahn. Born Rosa Jochmann in Vienna, Austria, on July 19, 1901; died in 1994; daughter of Karl Jochmann (a foundry worker) and Josefine Jochmann (a waitress and laundress); self-taught after age 14; never married; no children.

Went to work in a factory that produced chocolate and other confections (1914); transferred to a cable factory and injured her finger in an accident; joined a labor union and began to educate herself; became an official of the Chemical Workers' Union; rising in party leadership in the "Red Vienna" period of socialist reform, concerned with the interests of women, working conditions and environmental hazards to industrial workers (1918–34); arrested and imprisoned by the Austro-Fascist regime of Kurt von Schuschnigg (August 1934); was a leader in the underground Social Democratic movement (1934–38); remained in Austria after the Nazi occupation of March 1938; arrested by the German Gestapo (August 1939); spent more than five years in German captivity, mostly in the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp, until liberation (1945); remained active in Austrian public life after her liberation.

The childhood of Rosa Jochmann was typical of many who were born in Vienna's industrial working-class district of Brigittenau at the start of the 20th century. Her parents, like many laborers in the Austrian city, were Czech immigrants who had moved there from Moravia in search of jobs. Karl Jochmann worked in an iron foundry while Josefine Jochmann labored as a waitress or laundress for a day's wages that were enough to purchase two loaves of bread. Rosa was the fourth of the couple's six children, and soon after her birth the family moved to Simmering, another of the city's industrial districts, where she grew up in a two-room apartment, with only a kitchen and bedroom. To earn a few extra kreuzer (a copper coin valued at one-half of a cent), the Jochmanns rented out two of the family beds to Bettgeher (even more impoverished workers) who paid for the right to sleep in the tiny apartment but not to live there. The children were so often hungry that the bread had to be locked up, to prevent them from being tempted to pilfer.

Despite their poverty, the Jochmann family was stable, and Rosa's parents, though their formal educations had ended at the primary level, had a lively interest in the world around them. Although Rosa's father never read a book of Marxist theory, he was an enthusiastic Social Democrat, and sometimes told his young daughter that "when Herr Marx comes, then the situation for us workers will finally begin to improve." Rosa often accompanied her father to Socialist meetings and demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent and were bloodily terminated by police and troops with drawn sabers. On one such occasion, Karl Jochmann was wounded. When he returned home, Josefine scolded him, saying, it was "God's punishment for always going to demonstrations."

Karl Jochmann was often unemployed. Rosa had little choice but to look for work when her primary schooling ended. In 1915, age 14, she got her first job in a factory that manufactured chocolates, confections, and other foods. Spending hours at the backbreaking task of cleaning out large vessels used for mustard, she often broke into tears from exhaustion. But Rosa's misery was somewhat lightened when she was told by her division head that the taking of chocolates from the workplace was strictly forbidden, but she could eat sweets to her heart's content while on her shift. This small act of kindness became one of her first lessons in working-class fellowship.

World War I was raging across Europe at the time, and the wartime job market was volatile. As a young and unskilled female worker, Rosa soon learned the harsh reality of the dictum "last hired, first fired." Her next employment was at a cable factory, where she wrapped cables around drums. It was noisy, dirty, and dangerous work that made extraordinary physical demands on the body of a persistently undernourished 15-year-old. Many workers there had been the victims of serious, often crippling, accidents, and when Rosa caught a finger in one of the machines while working the night shift, the injury proved permanent and remained bothersome and disabling into her old age.

No longer able to work in the cable factory, Jochmann found yet another job at the bottom of the scale in terms of income, safety, and job security, this time with a company that manufactured candles. Her future appeared dreary at best, differing little from that of literally hundreds of thousands of proletarian young girls and women across Austria, when one of her older fellow workers urged her to become a union member. Membership dues were a modest 50 heller, but this was the same small amount Rosa normally spent every so often for her one pleasure, going to see a motion picture. She decided to forego this amusement, however, and joined the union. Almost from the outset, she began to distinguish herself through her direct and outspoken advocacy of the union's weakest and least articulate members. Her first speech at a union meeting was an impassioned plea on behalf of an older fellow worker who had not received the same raise granted everyone else in the factory because her job classification was "servant." From this time on, Jochmann grew increasingly outspoken on issues of immediate importance to her fellow factory workers, and also raised themes relating to the ever-worsening living conditions they faced in wartime.

By the autumn of 1918, when World War I ended, Jochmann and most of her fellow workers lived on the abyss of starvation. They despised the war that had killed so many of their husbands, brothers, and neighbors and ardently desired the creation of a new social order that would guarantee the elimination of the fundamental causes of war and human exploitation by reconstructing society on foundations of working-class power and international harmony.

By this time, Jochmann had undergone a remarkable transformation. At age 17, she was no longer a poorly educated, politically ignorant girl from the very lowest strata of Vienna's working class, but was in the process of becoming a well-read, confident leader. On November 12, 1918, she was part of the jubilant crowd of many thousands outside the Imperial Parliament building on Vienna's elegant Ringstrasse, that stood cheering the birth of the Austrian Republic. For Jochmann and many other workers that cold day, the occasion was bittersweet; the previous day, Dr. Victor Adler, the altruistic Jewish physician who had almost single-handedly founded the Austrian Social Democratic Party many decades before, had died. For years, he had worked in Vienna's slums, tending to the medical needs of indigent workers, yet, after four years of military bloodletting, Rosa and many of her fellow Viennese believed the working class could look forward to a bright era.

By 1919, municipal elections placed Social Democrats in control of Vienna, ushering in a vast experiment in social reform. From 1919 through February 1934, the city was governed by a Social Democratic administration that pursued policies intent on rapidly raising the physical, intellectual, and moral condition of Viennese workers to heights never before seen in a modern society. By raising taxes on the rich and instituting innovative housing and public-health schemes, "Red Vienna," as it was called, brought about impressive and lasting improvements in the lives of the working-class segment of society, who had gone largely ignored in capitalist societies up to that time.

Almost from the outset, Rosa Jochmann was involved in these changes. First as a parttime, then as a full-time functionary of the Social Democratic Party, she ran the factory committee of the Chemical Workers' Union. She also enrolled in virtually every night-school course offered by the educational section of the party. Because of her remarkable intelligence and ability to articulate ideas for both workers and intellectuals, as well her considerable warmth, she soon came to the attention of several leading women within the Viennese organization of the Social Democratic machine. For many years, Jochmann was nurtured and guided by Käthe Leichter , a Social Democratic leader about five years her senior, who was from a middle-class Jewish background and profoundly devoted to the cause of Marxist social transformation in Austria.

As a rising star in the Social Democratic Party, Jochmann also came to the attention of its leader, Otto Bauer. Their first encounter was not altogether happy. In the course of an address she was making before a group, her mispronunciation of a word prompted the chair of the meeting, a female functionary from Jochmann's own district of Simmering, to call attention to her error and suggest that she had no right to speak in public if she was going to have such lapses. What could have been a crushing moment psychologically was turned around by the intervention of Bauer, who took the rostrum to praise Jochmann and dismiss her pronunciation for the insignificant thing that it was, while also managing to avoid ruffling the feathers of the meeting's chair. It was a virtuoso performance on the part of Bauer, and the beginning of a fruitful political relationship between the two Socialists, based on mutual respect, that was to last until Bauer was forced to flee Austria in 1934 (he died in exile in Paris in July 1938). On several occasions, Bauer helped Jochmann overcome her stage fright and lack of confidence as she prepared to face large and potentially intimidating audiences.

By the late 1920s, Rosa Jochmann was clearly one of the most gifted younger women in the Austrian Social Democratic Party, when a new generation was needed to carry on the high level of enthusiasm and competence established by the pioneer generation of women Socialists then passing from the scene. By 1930, "Red Vienna" could pride itself on significant achievements in the fields of public housing, health and welfare, but there were dark economic clouds looming. The collapse of the New York stock market in the fall of 1929 was leading to a collapse in world trade and tourism, and the Austrian economy, which had never been strong even in the boom years of the 1920s, now spiraled downward at an alarming rate. Armed units of Fascists and Nazis were prowling the streets of the Austrian provincial towns and even beginning to challenge Vienna's militant workers on their own territory. Essentially an optimist, Jochmann's response was to redouble her efforts at party work and continue to educate herself. On women's issues, she spoke up loud and clear within a party which proclaimed sexual equality but in fact remained as thoroughly male-dominated as the bourgeois political parties. She was strongly in favor of revoking Paragraph 144 of the Austrian Penal Code, which banned abortions, believing that, by upholding this law, conservative Roman Catholic (as well as Nazi) Austrians were denying women a basic human right; she had accumulated a large and tragic collection of stories of women who had died or been permanently injured as a result of undergoing abortions under conditions made dangerous by the illegality of the procedure. The issue was one of many discussed by Jochmann and her cohorts at the Workers' Academy (Arbeiterhochschule), an innovative experiment in adult education that lasted from 1929 to 1930. Jochmann also wanted improvements in the working conditions of women exposed on the job site to dangerous substances or extreme heat, dust, and noise. Often her harshest criticisms were reserved not for greedy factory owners but for indifferent and lackadaisical factory inspectors.

In the early 1930s, the impressive achievements and even greater hopes of Viennese municipal socialism began to be eroded by the relentless assaults of Fascism in both Germany and Austria. In Germany, the Nazis became a major electoral force in September 1930, but they did not become a serious threat in Austria until the elections of April 1932. In early 1933, the seizure of power in Germany by Adolf Hitler made the existence of an independent Austria highly questionable, given the strong desire for union of the two countries (Anschluss) felt by most Germans and Austrians. Austrian Socialists like Rosa Jochmann believed, as did theorists like Otto Bauer, that a Greater German Socialist Republic should be the ultimate goal of the working class of Central Europe, but this dream came to an end with the triumph of Fascism in Germany. Jochmann often traveled to Germany on party assignments, and, on her last trip to that country before it became a Nazi state, she witnessed the horrors of the emerging Hitler regime firsthand. In Munich, a few days after Hitler was appointed German chancellor, she and a German colleague witnessed the ghastly sight of a father and son in death throes following a beating by Nazi storm troopers.

By the spring of 1933, Austrian Socialism was a political movement on the defensive, struggling desperately to survive. In the bloody civil war of February 1934, Austrian Socialism was crushed and the country brought under the rule of a "moderate" variant of Fascism led by Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who was later to be killed in a botched Nazi coup d'etat. With the Social Democratic Party outlawed, the Vienna municipal government thrown out of office, and Marxist trade unionism toppled, a new "Christian-authoritarian-corporatist" constitution was proclaimed, revoking many of the hard-won rights of workers and women. In the last days of constitutional government, Rosa Jochmann had been elected to the executive board of the Social Democratic Party, but with the onset of the Dollfuss dictatorship, Otto Bauer and most other leaders of the party fled abroad. Jochmann refused to flee and was soon spending her time organizing a new illegal underground party, defiantly and optimistically called Revolutionary Socialists, to lead the opposition to the dictatorship.

The ban on the Social Democratic Party also meant Rosa had no job or income, and life became a desperate struggle. There was a spirit of hope and solidarity among the men and women in the underground work, but the risks were considerable and constant. On July 15, 1934, a secret mass meeting of 3,000 Socialists held in the Vienna Woods was attacked by armed police, resulting in two deaths and many serious injuries. On a mission to distribute illegal leaflets in nearby Wiener Neustadt in August 1934, Jochmann was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to three months in police confinement and a year in prison. The sentence was pronounced by Alois Osio, an implacable enemy of the Social Democrats, who was to die, ironically, as a Nazi prisoner in the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1939.

In March 1938, a few days before the German annexation of Austria, the Social Democratic leadership, including Jochmann, emerged from hiding to call for a coalition of all anti-Nazi forces to resist the imminent threat to national independence. For a day or two, there was hope that Austria might be able to withstand the tide of Hitlerism, but the illusion soon evaporated, and Europe slid inexorably toward another war. With the Nazis in control of Austria, the fortunate among Jochmann's associates fled abroad to continue their anti-Fascist work. If they were Jewish, as many in the Social Democratic leadership were, they were in double jeopardy in the eyes of the Third Reich, being both a racial threat as Semites, and an ideological enemy as Marxists. In the first months of Nazi control, many thousands of Jews and Socialists, as well as Catholic and conservative foes of the Germans, were arrested in Austria and sent to Dachau and other concentration camps. Jochmann's arrest by the German secret military force, the Gestapo, did not come until August 22, 1939. Held and interrogated for several months in Vienna, she was transferred in March 1940 to the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück, in a trip that took three weeks.

One of Jochmann's early insights at Ravensbrück was the realization that female officials in the camp were often as cruel and heartless as the SS guards and administrators. In keeping with Nazi racial doctrines, Jewish prisoners were kept segregated from "Aryan" ones, but Rosa soon found that her dear friend from Vienna, Käthe Leichter, was in the camp. She and her colleagues found ways to communicate with the Jewish women, including Leichter, and learned that their work conditions, lodging and nourishment were drastically worse than those of non-Jewish inmates. Despite the degradations, Käthe Leichter's morale remained high. She became an example of courage and dignity to other prisoners, organizing secret celebrations of socialist holidays and writing poetry that was memorized by other prisoners and thus survived to appear in print after the war. In 1942, all the inmates were deeply saddened when she was among 1,500 Jewish women murdered by the Nazis.

By January 1941, Rosa Jochmann had earned the position of a senior leader (Blockälteste) among the Aryan political prisoners at Ravensbrück, which presented her with a chance for freedom. In the course of routine tours of inspections by Heinrich Himmler of his concentration camp empire, the Nazis would release a token number of prisoners every so often, for propaganda purposes, as a sign of their generosity and mercy toward enemies of the Reich. Camp officials gave Jochmann the opportunity to make an appeal on these grounds, but when Himmler arrived, she simply read her report as Blockälteste without asking for her release. In an interview many years later, Jochmann denied that there was anything heroic in her decision, noting that freedom at that moment would have required her to continue to think of her comrades under terrible conditions; by remaining in Ravensbrück, she was able to do some good and on certain occasions prevent worse evils from taking place.

As the war dragged on, conditions in the camp deteriorated greatly. Jochmann survived months in the notorious "bunker," where prisoners were brought to the edge of death and madness through deprivation of food, light, and adequate clothing. Fearful of being killed by the sadistic SS troops in charge, she summoned up sufficient reserves to respond to their rote demands to identify herself. "Protective Custody Prisoner Jochmann, No. 3014," she would answer.

Rosa Jochmann withstood the terrors at Ravensbrück for five years, while colleagues who were Jewish, Polish, or Russian were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz or died, one by one, of disease and starvation. Some, pushed beyond their psychological limits, committed suicide.

When liberation finally came in April 1945, the surviving women were given food and clothing and treated well by their Soviet liberators. Given the chaos of Germany in defeat, however, getting back home was not a simple matter. In late summer, Jochmann reached her beloved Vienna and found a city in ruins. Immense tasks lay ahead for the Socialist Party and the Austrian population in general, and she was quickly accepted by the new party leadership as a member of the presidium and chair of the women's central committee. Soon she was also serving in Parliament. She did not always agree with the party line, particularly in 1949, when it led to the approval of a new political party reserved essentially for former Nazis.

Jochmann never forgot the experience of Ravensbrück. She spoke to countless meetings on the evils of Nazism and the dangers of a New Right, particularly those alienated young people who had never been adequately educated about the nature of the regime behind the Holocaust. In March 1965, after being present at a peaceful anti-Fascist demonstration in Vienna that was turned by Neo-Nazis into a bloody riot and resulted in the death of a former concentration camp inmate, she became passionately involved in the work of educating young people about the Nazi era. The Documentation Archive of the Austrian Resistance, with which she was involved, became a model for all resistance archives in Europe; she also appeared on radio and television, and traveled throughout Austria to spread her message of Niemals wieder! (Never again).

As a living witness, Rosa Jochmann became a strong voice of conscience in a nation that many felt had developed a disturbing case of national amnesia when it came to National Socialist crimes. In the final years of her life, she bore a strong resemblance to the young working girl from Simmering who possessed an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and justice.


Buttinger, Joseph. In the Twilight of Socialism: A History of the Revolutionary Socialists of Austria. NY: Frederick A. Praeger, 1953.

Gruber, Helmut. Red Vienna: Experiment in Working-Class Culture 1919–1934. NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Langbein, Hermann.… nicht wie die Schafe zur Schlachtbank: Widerstand in den nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern 1938–1945. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980.

Pasteur, Paul. "Rosa Jochmann: résistante autrichienne a Ravensbrück," in Austriaca. Vol. 9, no. 17, 1983, p. 103–113.

Sporrer, Maria, and Herbert Steiner, eds. Rosa Jochmann: Zeitzeugin. 3rd ed. Vienna: Europaverlag, 1987.

Thalmann, Rita. "Les femmes dans la résistance autrichienne," in Austriaca. Vol. 9, no. 17, 1983, pp. 89–102.

Waschek, Hans, ed. Rosa Jochmann: Ein Kampf, der nie zu Ende geht. Reden und Aufsätze. Vienna: Löcker Verlag, 1994.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia