Discover the pioneer botanist and women’s rights activist who survived a Nazi death camp and lived to tell the tale.
Angela Piskernik was born in 1886 in Carinthia, on the border of present-day Slovenia and Austria. Society, at that time, frowned upon women entering higher education; in fact, in 1910, she graduated from high school with a certificate that declared she was fit “to attend university – to the extent permitted by existing regulations for women”. However, not only did Piskernik attend university, she thrived there. After first working as a school teacher, she went to Vienna and obtained a PhD in Botany with her thesis titled, “Plasmoderma in mosses”, becoming the first Slovenian woman to obtain a doctoral degree in the natural sciences.
When moving to Ljubljana, Piskernik took up employment at the provincial museum and was the only woman in the Ljubljana intellectual circle during the 1930s. Allegedly, she regularly frequented cafés without a male companion (oh, the horror). The letters and memoirs of her contemporaries reveal that her beauty and wit made her a friend, and ‘muse’, to several famous Slovenians but, although she had a long-time romantic affair with the art historian and conservator France Stele, she never married. It was her opinion that “marriage and the birth of children were not the only part of a woman’s ‘natural profession’”. She stressed that women should be allowed to assert themselves in other areas as well, and that simultaneously taking care of a household and one’s personal development would be very difficult. Piskernik also campaigned for women’s rights by hosting her own local radio show in the The Liberation Front of the Slovene Nation.
In 1941, Piskernik published her first book, “The Key to Identifying Flowering Plants and Ferns”, which contains a census of 2,222 plant species and subspecies. Records show the publication was a huge success and sold out quickly. Piskernik continued to work at the museum until the middle of World War II. Her life was disrupted in 1943 when she was charged with distributing ‘illegal’ material, convicted and sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp where other – mostly female – political prisoners of the Nazi regime were held. In her writings, Piskernik described her experience in the camps:
“it immediately became clear that the Germans still have much worse ways to reduce you to nothing. They don’t just rob you of your property, they don’t just strip you naked the first day and dress you in gray and blue-striped convict rags of hard wool, they don’t just take your notes and documents. You are now just another number between numbers. I was told that I was number 26,069.”
Of the 130,000 women held at Ravensbrück during the war, more than 50,000 are thought to have been killed. Here, Piskernik witnessed and endured profound violence, hunger, and suffering, including forced labour. Nazi doctors conducted ‘research’, such as amputations and sterilisation experiments on women while others were forced into prostitution, having to ‘reward’ male prisoners who performed well in their labour duties. Towards the end of the war, suffering from bladder infections and the ‘flu’, she was selected for Jugendlager (literally: ‘youth camp’, but more accurately, death).
Piskernik bravely documented her suffering, but among her notes were found recipes from all over Europe, a sad representation of the geographical history of the prisoners. It seems unusual that the starving camp women should talk about food but, she said: “when we were hungry we told each other recipes, and it seemed to us that this helped against hunger”. For Piskernik, this culinary record had nothing to do with a love of cooking, in fact, she did not like to cook at all.
For her and many others it instead represented strength and defiance against the Nazi incarcerators. Indeed, with a table of contents and methodical descriptions, Piskernik’s documents were so meticulously arranged that they could later be published without being edited. It remains a mystery as to how she managed to keep them from the Nazis when writing was strictly forbidden.
Miraculously, Angela was released from Jugendlager, back to the camp, on the morning of her scheduled execution. With the other survivors, she was released from Ravensbrück just before Easter in 1945. After the war, she went back to the museum in Ljubljana, becoming its director and continuing her work in nature conservation. In 1951, some of her recipes and camp notes were published in the literary magazine “Svoboda” and, that same year, the second edition of her first book, now describing over 2,600 plants, was also published.
Though her political activism waned and she encountered no further problems with the then communist government, she remained active in other ways, including writing several books on difficult German grammar conventions, recording folklore and ghost stories, and writing her own short stories and many popular articles. On her 80th birthday, she received the Gold Star Order of Merit, a lifetime achievement award for her work in Science, from the Yugoslav President Josip Broz-Tito.
The achievements of this remarkable woman during her lifetime are one thing, but Angela Piskernik did what most humans fail to do – she left a legacy that will last for hundreds of years. Thanks to her numerous seminal works on nature conservation, she is credited with the protection of many botanical and animal species, receiving the Van Tienhoven prize in 1967. Triglav National Park – a pristine, visually spectacular world of clear, blue lakes, rocky mountain areas, river gorges, waterfalls, and Alpine flora, including the edelweiss flower – was designated as a protected area shortly after her death and in her honour. In 2019, the Slovenian government commissioned a special stamp to commemorate her life’s contributions and, more recently, the Angela Piskernik Park was opened in Ljubljana for people to enjoy for many generations to come.