Satirical texts quickly flowed from Gisela Söhnlein’s pen during her incarceration in the concentration camps of Vught, the Netherlands and Ravensbrück, Germany. She and her inseparable friend Hetty Voûte wrote and sang countless cabaret songs. “It was a task we gave ourselves. It was expected of us.”
Dolle Dinsdag [“Mad Tuesday,” September 5, 1944] Gisela Söhnlein and her friend Hetty Voûte were dispatched from Vught to Ravensbrück in Germany. Transportation was dreadful.
“Spending two days and three nights in a freight car with eighty other people was no picnic. But we wrote a song about that, too. It seems a bit strange, but doing that almost lifted our spirits again. We could hear the shots of the Allied forces. So when we arrived at Ravensbrück, we were still very optimistic. We thought we’d be able to hold out just a little bit longer. But for us, Ravensbrück was like looking into the mouth of hell. The most dreadful skeletons were walking around. They were scenes from another world. We didn’t even know how to react to them. On arrival, we were first put in quarantine, and that’s when we wrote our first songs, including “Shipped Off.”
Helping Jewish Children in Amsterdam
Gisela and Hetty had been prisoners together since June 1943, when they were arrested and taken to the Sicherheitsdienst prison in Haaren, a town in the Dutch province of North Brabant. As students, they became involved in helping Jewish children go into hiding. Gisela studied in Amsterdam and lived opposite the Gestapo headquarters in Euterpestraat. From her room, she could see and hear the overvalwagens [armored military vehicles] driving in and out; people were manhandled and hustled into the Gestapo building. She could hear people shouting and crying, and the Gestapo dogs barking loudly. “It was all very close by. It was terrible, everything that went on there. [...] At that time, a fellow student had asked me to also help Jewish children. And so we did. We helped to find them hiding places in and outside Amsterdam. It was dangerous and entirely forbidden by the Germans, but we weren’t about to let that stop us. We didn’t care.” The German occupiers obviously thought otherwise.
Communicating inPprison with St. Nicholas Songs
On June 12, 1943, Hetty was arrested by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), Gisela the following day. The two were brought to the Major Seminary in Haaren which the SD had turned into a prison. They were put in separate cells but could still communicate with each other, mainly by singing, through the pivot windows above the doors. It was Hetty who We went over our interrogations by singing and brought these in line with each other this way. We discovered that we could communicate with each other like this. The Germans paid no attention.”
When they were moved to other cells where the pivot windows had been boarded up, they used holes in the wall to stay in contact. They passed notes to each other via the prisoner in the cell between them. They developed a communication system based on songs that Dutch children traditionally sing leading up to and on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas (December 5). When one of them would send off a message, she would sing Zie ginds komt de stoomboot [“Look, There Is the Steamboat”]. The other would then answer with Vol verwachting klopt ons hart [“Our Hearts Race in Anticipation”]. Once the message was received, she would sing O kom er eens kijken, wat ik in mijn schoentje vind [“Oh, Come and See What I Have Found in My Shoe”].
Contact with the Englandspiel Boys
“Through the holes in the wall, we also had contact with two of the Englandspiel boys - Huib Lauwers and Han Jordan. They were being held above us. Han Jordan didn’t live to see the end of the war, but I did meet Huib after the war. We talked about everything and laughed a lot. They taught us English songs. Hetty smuggled a message up to them because they had no idea where they were. When a couple of the Englandspiel boys escaped, the Germans searched all the cells and found the holes in the wall. Hetty thought that’s why we were transferred to Vught, as a punishment.” They were transferred in December 1943. The two women spent ten months at Vught.
Pooh & Piglet perform at Vught and Ravensbrück
Although they were no longer being held in solitary confinement and could converse with each other normally while at Vught, the two friends continued to sing. And for the first time, they had an audience. Back in Haaren, a fellow prisoner had given them nicknames. Gisela was called “Piglet” and Hetty “Pooh” after the characters in the book Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. They were known as the “Pooh & Piglet duo,” or “P & P.” They wrote their own lyrics to existing, familiar melodies by Louis Davids, Charles Trenet, and others; songs they had learned at summer camp; German and French tunes; folk songs; and their own variations on “Lili Marleen.” They also wrote parodies and caricatures.
“In 1944, we organized a colorful afternoon with the other prisoners for Easter. We said, ‘We’ll provide the cabaret songs.’ There were 100 women - nearly everyone was there. We performed in between the barracks. I think that women sat on the ground, I can't remember exactly. One woman pretended she was grinding a big barrel organ: ‘oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah.’ We started with Mistvieh to the tune of Het Tolhuis [‘The Toll House’]. By then, we had written about six songs. One of the women kept a lookout. We would have had to stop if an Aufseherin [‘wardress’] had come along.”
Songs Provide Comfort, Entertainment, and Distraction
The songs the two women wrote at Ravensbrück contained a mixture of irony and entertainment as well, such as Ravensbrück-les-Bains. They wrote the songs in the evening after their work during the day which included turning spools for mechanical parts. They most often sang the songs in the barracks on Sunday afternoons, as Sunday was their day off. The songs offered comfort to their fellow inmates, were a source of entertainment, and provided a distraction. They were, in fact, “hard labor vitamins.” “One of the other inmates at Ravensbrück was a hard-line communist. She didn’t believe in God but said, 'Your songs are my psalms.’”
Gisela and Hetty’s optimism rarely faltered, and they continued to sing about their lives in the camp in a matter-of-fact, humorous, joking way. “We wrote those songs because we had no choice. We had an urge to create something, and it was a wonderful activity.” Yet there were moments of serious doubt. In 1944, for instance, a gas chamber was built at Ravensbrück in which older women were gassed. “But our singing helped people; it could give them courage. And that’s why we felt that we absolutely had to keep doing it, even though it was a very terrifying time. It was a task we gave ourselves. It was expected of us.”
No More Cabaret After the War
When the camp was liberated by the Swedish in April 1945, the women were able to travel to Sweden in some twenty Red Cross buses transporting about 800 women from the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. From there, they made their way back to the Netherlands.
After the war, Gisela resumed her law studies and graduated in 1947. She married and held several jobs, including one at an office for psychological market research. She has never lost her pragmatism or sense of humor. She has rarely sung the songs since the war. The first time was in the 1980s, when the then Swedish Red Cross drivers had been invited to the Netherlands.
“Looking back, it turns out that the lyrics to our song Als we weer zijn thuisgekomen ["Once We’re Back Home Again"] set to a famous melody by Louis Davids, made a big impression on people. Many of the texts took on a life of their own. After the war, it turned out that many people had written down the lyrics to this song on a scrap of paper. It was one of the few songs everyone could understand because our other songs were only about what had happened to us at Vught and Ravensbrück. They were hard for others to relate to, since they didn’t know what the songs were about.”
Author: Nicole Janssen