Vienna 1906 – Auschwitz-Birkenau 1944): Leader of the female inmates’ orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau (“girls’ orchestra”)
Virtuosic authority saved women’s lives
In terms of fame, Alma Rosé – together with the librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda, the Social Democratic Member of Parliament Robert Danneberg, the President of the Jewish Community Desider Friedmann and the Jewish National Party politician Robert Stricker – was one of the most well-known victims of Auschwitz. Her father, Arnold Rosé, was concertmaster of the Vienna Court Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic, and his Rosé Quartet was one of the most significant ensembles of its age. Her mother was the sister of the composer Gustav Mahler. Alma Rosé studied with her father and her début took place in late 1926 in the great hall of Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall. She seemed destined for greatness. In 1932 she founded a women’s orchestra, the “Viennese Waltz Girls”, with which she went on tour in 1933.
After the “Anschluss”, the Rosés were designated “Jewish” by the Nazis, despite the fact that they were all members of either the Protestant or Catholic Church. In March 1939, Alma Rosé managed to flee to England. In late 1939 she flew to Amsterdam to perform in a concert. She remained there and, following the German occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940, once more found herself in imminent danger. Alma Rosé went into hiding, entering into a marriage of convenience with a Dutchman. As Dutch Jews were being deported, she fled to France, where she was arrested in late 1942 and interned in the assembly camp at Drancy. In July 1943 she was deported to Auschwitz.
Alma Rosé was initially in utmost peril, as she was accommodated in a block in which SS doctors were undertaking high-risk medical experiments. SS Chief Guard Maria Mandl overheard her playing the violin there and placed her in the existing women’s orchestra, also, it is said, in order to increase her own standing among the camp elite. Alma Rosé became the orchestra’s leader. Every morning and evening, come rain or shine, the orchestra accompanied the thousands of female prisoners marching in step.
Rosés ambition was to bring the orchestra up to a high standard. However, since not all musicians were trained to that level, instruments were lacking and the climatic and spatial conditions were damaging to the instruments, it was a virtually unachievable undertaking. The camp leadership around Maria Mandl took a liking to the women’s orchestra and provided it with sheet music and instruments that had been confiscated from new arrivals. The Sunday concerts were also attended by Kapos and members of the SS. Alma Rosé thrived in her role. In her position as a Kapo she received her own room, where she ceaselessly arranged music for the peculiar orchestration. Her natural authority and strictness meant that she was not only respected by the members of the orchestra but also – and this was virtually unique – by the SS guards, above all by Chief Guard Maria Mandl.
Through her involvement in the women’s orchestra, Alma Rosé saved the lives of its members for the time being and provided them with some respite from the stressful conditions in the camp. Membership in the orchestra even helped in cases of sickness: the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch described a selection that took place as she lay in the sick bay with typhoid fever to decide who would live and who would be gassed. A simple remark, “That’s the cellist”, saved her life in that instance. Despite the comparatively superior conditions of her imprisonment, Alma Rosé did not survive. A small street on the periphery of Vienna has been named after her since 1969 and the Alma Rosé Plateau at the House of Austrian History museum has borne her name since 2019.
Helena Dunicz Niwińska, Wege meines Lebens. Erinnerungen einer Geigerin aus Birkenau, Oświęcim 2015.
Richard Newman, Karen Kirtley, Alma Rosé. Wien 1906 – Auschwitz 1944, Bonn 2003.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Ihr sollt die Wahrheit erben. Die Cellistin von Auschwitz, Reinbek bei Hamburg 22014.
Michaela Raggam-Blesch, Monika Sommer, Heidemarie Uhl (ed.), Nur die Geigen sind geblieben. Alma und Arnold Rosé, Vienna 2018.