Rosé, Alma (1906–1944)
Rosé, Alma (1906–1944)
Austrian-Jewish violinist and conductor of the women's orchestra at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, portrayed in the book and film Playing for Time, whose efforts saved countless musicians condemned to the camps. Name variations: Alma Rose. Born Alma Maria Rosé in 1906 in Vienna, Austria; died in Auschwitz on April 4, 1944, only a few months before the liberation of the camp in January 1945; daughter of Arnold Rosé (a concertmaster of both the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Court Opera Orchestra [State Opera Orchestra after 1918]) and Justine Mahler (sister of Gustav Mahler); sister of Alfred Rosé (1902–1975, a noted conductor who escaped to the U.S. and Canada).
Following in her father's footsteps, studied the violin and was a virtuoso performer by her teens; with her father, recorded Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra of Johann Sebastian Bach (1931); struck out on her own and established a solid career in Austriaand other European nations (mid-1930s); the Nazi annexation of Austria (March 1938) ended her father's career in Vienna, but he continued to perform in Great Britain; did not follow her father into exile but remained in Europe; arrested in the Netherlands and sent to Westerbork (1942); transported to Auschwitz, where she became conductor of that concentration camp's women's orchestra (1943).
Born in Vienna in 1906 when that imperial metropolis was the political and cultural heart of Central Europe, Alma Rosé could boast of extraordinary musical genealogy. Her mother Justine Mahler was highly musical, which was not surprising given the fact that she was the sister of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and Court (later State) Opera orchestras and composer of some of the greatest works of late German Romanticism. Her father Arnold Rosé was one of the most highly respected musicians in the German-speaking world. Though her parents had wanted a boy, they did everything possible to see to it that Alma became a musician. At birth, a tiny violin was already in her room. The family determined
she would become a child prodigy like her father.
Arnold Rosé, born Arnold Josef Rosenblum in Jassy in the Bukovina province of the Austrian empire (today Iasi, Romania), had triumphed over anti-Semitic prejudices through the sheer force of his musical genius. He made an acclaimed debut in 1879 at the famous Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig and by 1881 had become concertmaster of both the Vienna Philharmonic and Court Opera orchestras—posts he would hold with distinction for 57 years. Arnold Rosé was also a brilliant chamber music performer, founding his own lauded string quartet in 1882. In such a rich musical milieu, young Alma's natural talent quickly flourished, and by her early 20s she began a successful career as a violin virtuoso. A permanent testimonial to her talent is her recording with her father of the Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra of Johann Sebastian Bach. Transcribed in 1931, this moving rendition appeared in CD format in the early 1990s.
Despite the anti-Semitism which pervaded Viennese public life, the Rosés established satisfying careers for themselves. In the 1930s, it appeared the family name would continue to be prominent in musical circles. Alfred Rosé, Alma's brother, was becoming known as a fine conductor, while her own musical skill and artistic taste captivated audiences both inside and beyond the borders of Austria. The Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933 ended these possibilities, however. Restrictions increased as anti-Semitic legislation grew, shattering hopes and dreams.
Most of Alma Rosé's energy went into her work, and like many artists she ignored the swirling turmoil of the 1930s. The family was unprepared when her father was summarily terminated as concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera orchestras after the Anschluss, the Nazi occupation of Austria in March 1938. Arnold fled to London as a penniless refugee, where, at age 75, he reconstituted his famous string quartet which delighted British music-lovers for another half-decade.
Alma decided to remain in Europe. Whether because of stubbornness or political naivete, she refused to cross the English Channel. In the late 1930s, she went to France, which had a large community of German-speaking refugees in Paris. When the Nazis invaded and occupied France in May 1940, she went to the Netherlands. German conquest and occupation of that neutral country quickly led to restrictions against both native-born Dutch Jews and Jewish refugees like herself. It was difficult for Rosé to understand why she was persecuted. She was little interested in Judaism either as a faith or as a cultural tradition. She lived for music, her one consuming passion.
Life in the Netherlands rapidly deteriorated, and in 1942 the Nazi Final Solution was implemented. Although many Dutch men and women took great risks to save Jews (Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has given more awards for rescue achievements to the Dutch than to the people of any other nation), the country was small, flat, and treeless, with no place to hide. There was also a significant group (80,000) of Dutch Nazis who often assisted German occupation officials in tracking down "the divers"—Jews who had gone into hiding. Of the more than 150,000 Dutch and foreign-born Jews in the country in 1940, only about 20,000 survived the war. Unable to hide, Rosé was arrested in 1942 and sent to Westerbork before being moved to Auschwitz.
The small Polish district town of Oswiecim, 50 kilometers southwest of Cracow, was located in the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy until 1918, when it became part of independent Poland. Oswiecim was incorporated into Nazi Germany in October 1939 after the defeat and occupation of Poland and given the name Auschwitz. Located near the Sola River, a tributary of the Vistula, Auschwitz was essentially unpleasant and unhealthy, a humid and foggy valley with swampy soil. Evacuation of the local population created an area of 40 square kilometers in which a vast complex of facilities was built to house, exploit, and murder large numbers of Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and other groups deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime. According to the SS bureaucracy, these individuals had committed offenses which were "relatively light and definitely correctable." The main camp, known as Auschwitz I, rapidly expanded and accommodated 18,000 prisoners by the end of 1941, which grew to 30,000 by 1943. Construction of Auschwitz II, known as the Birkenau camp, began in October 1941.
Women were first sent to Auschwitz I in late March 1942. At first, the women's camp was relatively small, consisting of 999 German women brought from the Ravensbrück concentration camp and an equal number of Jewish women prisoners from Slovakia. By the summer of 1942, the population of the women's section had swollen to 6,000, and it was decided to transfer the women's section to Birkenau, which by January 1944 held 27,053 female prisoners. These women lived under horrifying conditions and some among their number were constantly being selected for the gas chambers. The first Auschwitz prisoners were Poles who had been engaged in resistance, but by 1942 more and more Jews were brought to the camps.
Upon arriving, Rosé was examined by an SS physician in charge of determining who would be put to work and who sent immediately to the gas chamber. Educated, articulate, and in good health, Rosé was allowed to live. The next years of her brief life would be dominated by music even in the face of death. Her efforts not only would allow Rosé to live but would save the lives of countless other women as well. Music often served a utilitarian purpose. Marches were played when prisoners went to work in the morning and when they returned to their barracks. At the Janowska camp, a "Death Tango" was performed during the Selektionen that decided whether newly arrived prisoners would live or die.
Orchestras, bands, choirs and other large musical ensembles were a hallmark of Nazi concentration camps. As early as 1933, a choir of 120 performed at the Lichtenburg camp. In Buchenwald in the late 1930s, the SS commanded that a motley orchestra of guitars, harmonicas, and various brass instruments perform regularly. The influx of many talented Viennese Jewish musicians in 1938 resulted in an expansion of musical activity in several camps. In Buchenwald, cabaret performances, including music and songs, briefly showcased the talents of stars like Hermann Leopoldi before the SS banned such displays of impudence. When war vastly expanded the SS concentration-camp empire, many more orchestras were created. Prisoners often brought instruments with them. These were kept when their owners were gassed so that a broad selection was always available to incoming inmates. At the main Auschwitz camp, a brass band of 120 players, a symphony orchestra of 80, a dance band of 20, and a jazz ensemble of 5 performers entertained. Even camps exclusively created as extermination facilities—Belzec, Maidanek, Sobibor and Treblinka—had orchestras.
The camp commander, Maria Mandel , immediately recognized Alma Rosé's talents and appreciated her musical heritage. A "great music lover" who spared no effort to improve the cultural life of her camp, particularly its musical environment, Mandel came from a very different world than did her prisoner. Born in the village of Münzkirchen, Upper Austria, in 1912, Mandel was typical of the poor, rural people who often joined the Nazi party. Alma Rosé's affluent family—sophisticated and internationally respected—lived in a world unknown to the commandant from the backward Austrian provinces. Meeting someone of Rosé's caliber likely never would have happened to Mandel had she not been put in charge of a death camp. She appreciated the celebrity status which beckoned in the twisted environment of the concentration camp universe.
Rosé leaped at the opportunity to become part of the concentration-camp orchestra. Music had long been her only escape, even in the outside world. Furthermore, being a member of an orchestra gave a woman prisoner distinct advantages over other prisoners. Mandel's musicians enjoyed a protected status. Their block was kept in better repair than those of the clerical staff or prisoners assigned to the cooking unit, and they were able to rehearse in a building that was kept comfortably warm in wintertime. Although their rations were still inadequate, they received more than ordinary prisoners, and they were relatively well dressed in blue cloth dresses and caps. The orchestra was usually busy, playing at roll call and performing martial tunes for the exhausted women who came marching back to their barracks after a day of forced labor. All official occasions included music. Rosé's elevation to conductor of the orchestra placed her in a grotesque position. She operated in a camp founded to humiliate, dehumanize, exploit, and exterminate its inmates under administrators determined to foster a warped version of "culture" within its walls.
Alma Rosé, a tall, dignified woman with dark hair, had a striking presence. As conductor, she assumed the role of a Kapo, which gave her great power over the work and even the lives of her ensemble members. In all Nazi concentration camps, the Kapo saw to it that the rules of the camp were meticulously followed. The traditional authoritarian role of orchestra conductor was thus greatly reinforced by the camp culture. Rosé took full advantage of her position, pushing her musicians to the outer limits of skill and endurance. She was motivated by fear and determination, as she knew the orchestra could survive only if its performances pleased its captors. The role of the authoritarian musician came quite naturally to Rosé. Like many German-speaking Jews, she was totally assimilated into German culture and typically assumed that her cultural heritage was superior to that of the Poles, French, and other non-German members of her orchestra. Above all, she was determined to use her knowledge of German culture to survive in an extremely hostile environment.
Many problems faced Rosé. Hers was anything but a conventional orchestra. Composed of ten violins, a flute, reed pipes, two accordions, five mandolins, three guitars, and a percussion section of cymbals and drums, it was an odd mixture of instruments. Recognizing that sound was of utmost importance, Rosé pressed Fania Fénelon , a Jewish musician from Paris who had never before done such work, to orchestrate music. Despite her family heritage, Rosé was not a conductor. She was a virtuoso violinist who read the score as any player would. Her conducting skill was often rudimentary and left much to be desired. Recognizing her weaknesses, she compensated with hours of practice, driving orchestra members to play 12-to-17 hours a day. This regime took its toll on orchestra members, but gradually the ensemble improved. Often, there was "nightwork," a ghastly time when the orchestra entertained SS men. Each day Rosé's musicians entertained kept them alive—quite literally they were "playing for time."
Alma Rosé was the link between demanding captors and frightened, undernourished musicians. Often, these women could not decide who they hated most—the Nazis or their conductor. Rosé's power over them symbolized their powerlessness in the face of the Nazi system of racial hatred and extermination. Sometimes Rosé seemed inhuman, driving them to the limits of physical endurance. Despite their bitterness, the women often felt great unity while playing. Rosé was transformed, even transfigured, when playing her violin. Fénelon describes her as an "incomparably beautiful" young woman who "gave off an extraordinary sensuality." While playing, "her relaxed mouth softened, halfpened; her eyes misted over; her body trembled. Alma was in the throes of love. We were silent, we listened and forgot. When she stopped and put down her bow, the desire to applaud was irresistible. But it was very, very short, the length of a piece of music. Then, instantly, Alma became inhuman once again."
Rosé was isolated. She told Fenelon that her family had always "thought like Germans…. I hardly knew we were Jewish." Rosé never seemed to comprehend the enormity of what had happened her. For example, being tattooed "worried" her somewhat because she refused to accept its purpose. Her survival tool was her music which provided temporary release and escape from the threat of the gas chambers. In this, she proved correct. Despite their fear and suffering, Rosé and her orchestra experienced some transcendingly glorious moments. When she conducted Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a work whose opening bars were the symbol of Allied victory, the women were transported. Ignoring the unconventional nature of their ensemble, they played "in a state of grace because [on that occasion] the symphony soared, compelling and marvelous."
Each day brought new perils, however. Once when Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler visited the camp, he did not compliment Rosé on her work. This incident caused great fear for the conductor and her orchestra. In their world, criticism could mean death. Rosé cultivated Himmler, hoping to play for German troops.
By the spring of 1944, the war was not going well for the Nazis, and tension increased. More and more trainloads of Jews arrived. Fewer and fewer survived while the crematoriums worked overtime. Though Rosé worked harder than ever to survive, eventually Auschwitz claimed her as yet another victim. She became suddenly ill and died on April 4, 1944. Meningitis and spotted typhus were epidemic in the camp. Poison was also suspected, after an autopsy, and SS doctors declared that to be the cause of her death. One Frau Schmidt, a German camp supervisor, was strongly suspected as the culprit. This may well have been what happened. Operating in the highly charged camp environment, Rosé may have made enemies who felt she had escaped death for far too long.
Rosé's funeral reflected the bizarre nature of Auschwitz. The SS erected a catafalque for her body next to the camp medical room. Covered with a profusion of white flowers, mainly lilies, her face was calm, relaxed and beautiful. Her long hands, crossed on her breast, held a flower. Surrounded by her sobbing musicians, she lay in state while members of the SS filed past the foot of her bed, respectfully removing their hats. Maria Mandel was inconsolable. In a small room of one of Adolf Hitler's worst death camps, Nazi captors and Jewish prisoners mourned the passing of a remarkable woman.
As German armies continued to crumble, more and more prisoners were exterminated, but Alma Rosé's orchestra survived. After Auschwitz was liberated in January 1945, these women began their lives anew. For several decades, this strange chapter in history was all but forgotten, and like so many who died in the Holocaust, Alma Rosé was barely remembered. But the image of this fiercely determined musician forcing her orchestra to "play for time" did not die. Orchestra members realized that her efforts had saved them from the ovens. Alma Rosé's conducting career can only be termed a nightmare, but she always believed that the power of music would triumph over the power of darkness.
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