, 1906 Vienna
– April 4
, 1944 Concentration Camp Auschwitz
) was an Austrian violinist
descent. Her uncle was the composer Gustav Mahler
. Alma Rosé was deported by the Nazis to the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau
. There she directed an orchestra of terrified prisoners who played to their captors in order that they should stay alive. Alma Rosé died in the concentration camp, probably of food poisoning.
Alma Rosé’s father was the violinist Arnold Rosé
(1863-1946) who was the leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
for 50 years: from 1881-1931 as well as leader of the Vienna State Opera
orchestra and leader of the legendary Rosé String Quartet. Her mother was Gustav Mahler
’s sister Justine; she was named for Alma Mahler
Alma grew up to be a violinist. In 1930 she married the Czech
violinist Váša Příhoda
(1900-1960), who was considered one of the great violin virtuosi of the 20th century. In 1935 the marriage was dissolved. In later years it was claimed that Příhoda had separated from his wife for opportunistic reasons because of National Socialism
. However, these claims are unfounded: the chronology does not fit and, in any case, his second wife was also Jewish.
Meanwhile Alma Rosé was following a highly successful career. In 1932 she founded the woman’s orchestra Die Wiener Walzermädeln
(The Waltzing Girls of Vienna). The ensemble played to a very high standard, undertaking concert tours throughout Europe
Escape from the Nazis and final arrest
After the annexation of Austria with Germany
in 1938 Alma Rosé and her father Arnold Rosé, himself a famous violin virtuoso, managed to escape to London
. But Alma went back to the continent and continued to perform in Holland. When the Germans occupied the Netherlands, she was trapped. Marriage to a Dutch engineer did not save her; nor did her nominal status as a Christian convert. She fled to France, but in late 1942, she was arrested there by the Gestapo
. After several months in the internment camp of Drancy she was finally deported in July 1943 to the concentration camp
Upon arrival in Auschwitz, Rosé was quarantined and became very ill, but was eventually recognized. She assumed leadership of the Mädchenorchester von Auschwitz (Girl orchestra of Auschwitz
). The orchestra had been in existence before Rosé's arrival, a pet project of SS-Oberaufseherin Maria Mandel
. Prior to Rosé, the orchestra was conducted by Zofia Czajkowska, a Polish teacher. The ensemble consisted mainly of amateur musicians, and was composed of an odd amalgam of instruments, including a string section, but also accordions and a mandolin. The orchestra's primary function was to play at the main gate each morning and evening as the prisoners left for and returned from their work assignments; the orchestra also gave weekend concerts for the prisoners and the SS and entertained at SS functions. Reports are inconsistent on whether the orchestra played during selections for gassing. As the conductor of the orchestra, Rosé had the status of a kapo
in the camp, with some privileges and comforts that exceeded those of the average inmate, including additional food and a private room. (The other orchestra members lived less luxuriously, but were adequately clothed and avoided hard manual labor.) Rosé is said to have molded the orchestra into an excellent ensemble; she conducted, orchestrated and sometimes played violin solos during its concerts. She was evidently held in high esteem on account of her musical prowess by Maria Mandel, Josef Kramer
and Josef Mengele
- a level of respect that was highly unusual for Jewish prisoners.
The orchestra did include two professional musicians, cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and vocalist/pianist Fania Fénelon, each of whom wrote memoirs of their time in the orchestra that were eventually translated into English. Fénelon's account, Playing for Time, was made into a film of the same name.
Fénelon's account was controversial particularly with respect to its treatment of Rosé. Fénelon depicts Rosé as a cold-hearted autocrat who kowtowed to the Germans for her own self-interest, and emphasizes that she was abusive to the musicians. Other members of the orchestra (including Lasker-Wallfisch) strongly dispute this account, claiming that Rosé's ultimate interest was in protecting the well-being of the women in her orchestra, which not only required that Rosé establish and maintain a high musical standard by any means possible, but also that she placate her Nazi captors. As evidence of her success, Rosé's supporters note that - under her tenure - not one member of the orchestra was killed; members who fell ill were even treated at the hospital, unheard of for Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Alma Rosé died in Auschwitz in 1944, probably as a result of food poisoning, though typhus is another possibility. (It is unlikely that she was deliberately poisoned as Fénelon alleges.)
Arnold Rosé managed to escape to England. Grief-stricken by news of Alma's death, he did not survive long after the war. His performances together with Alma were eventually released on CD.
- Richard Newman, Karen Kirtley: Alma Rosé: Vienna to Auschwitz. Amadeus Press ISBN 1-57467-051-4
- Fania Fénelon: Playing for Time Syracuse University Press
- Anita Lasker Wallfisch: Inherit the Truth
- at website.lineone.net
- Alma Rose at www.jmw.at