Gustav Mahler is one of the most famous classical music composers and conductors of all time. Yet, his music was considered as degenerate by the Nazi regime, and was therefore banned in Germany and all the occupies territories. It was not because Mahler was a bad composer but because he was Jewish.
However the Nazis had no issues being musically entertained by Mahler’s niece, Alma Rosé. In fact Alma was selected to play in and conduct the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz.
The orchestra was formed in April 1943 by SS-Oberaufseherin Maria Mandel, supervisor of the women’s camp in Auschwitz, and SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Franz Hössler, the women’s camp commandant. The Nazis wanted a propaganda tool for visitors and camp newsreels and a tool to boost camp morale.
Rosé’s arrival at the camp’s railway siding was in bitter contrast to her previous engagements in nearby Krakow, Poland, just a 45-minute drive away. She had appeared there at least twice – as a violinist appearing with her former husband, the Czech violin virtuoso Váša Příhoda, and in 1935 as a conductor of her celebrated women’s orchestra, the elegant Wiener Walzermädeln which she founded and led throughout Europe.
The orchestra had 20 members by June 1943; by 1944 it had 42–47 musicians Its primary role was to play (often for hours on end in all weather conditions) at the gate of the women’s camp when the work gangs left and returned. They might also play during “selection” and in the infirmary.
They would rehearse for up to ten hours a day to play music regarded as helpful in the daily running of the camp. They also held a concert every Sunday for the SS.
For the orchestra’s concerts the women wore blue pleated skirts, white blouses and lavender-coloured kerchief head coverings.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was a cellist in the orchestra and she recalled in her memoirs, and in a documentary called “We want the light” the orchestra being told to play Schumann’s Träumerei for Josef Mengele.
According to one report of a concert in the bath-house, a number of SS women were joking and interrupting the performance in which Alma Rosé was playing a solo. She stopped and angrily said: ‘Like that, I cannot play.’ Silence followed; she then played, and no one disciplined her.
Alma Rosé was even able to convince the Nazis to spare her musicians from selections for the gas chambers. When mandolin player Rachela Zelmanowicz was in the infirmary with typhus,which would be a death sentence for any other prisoner,Josef Mengele was prepared to send her to the gas chambers. “What’s with this one?” he asked during his rounds. “She’s from the orchestra.”
Mengele continued on his way without any further discussion. As a member of Rosé’s orchestra, Zelmanowicz was untouchable even by him. Her life was spared.
Alma Rosé died suddenly on 5 April 1944, possibly from food poisoning, after a birthday celebration for a kapo
On 1 November 1944, the Jewish members of the women’s orchestra were evacuated by cattle car to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where there was neither orchestra nor special privileges.Three members, Charlotte “Lola” Croner, Julie Stroumsa and Else, died there.
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