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Alma's Orchestra.

Alma Rose: from Vienna to Auschwitz By RICHARD NEWMAN (with KAREN KIRTLEY). Portland. Oregon: Amadeus Press, 2000.

Alfred Rose, my teacher of the history of opera at the University of Western Ontario's Music School in the mid-1960s, never spoke much about his sister. There was, of course, no reason why he should have done so; most professors didn't speak about the members of their family. But we all knew that Alfred Rose came from an extraordinary family. His mother's brother was Gustav Mahler, the greatest symphonist of the late Romantic era. Alfred's father was the legendary concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, leader of one of the great string quartets in Europe, and a great influence on his son. Alfred's other mentors included Richard Strauss, under whom he served as an assistant conductor, and Giacomo Puccini, for whom Alfred, who was fluent in Italian, served as an interpreter when the great composer was in Austria. Alfred spoke frequently about his associations with these people, but about his sister I can recall him speaking only once. He mentioned, in the course of recall ing his contemporaries in Central Europe who had gone on to fame and fortune in the New World, that "Rudi" Bing had dated his sister. Rudolf Bing, of course, became the famously autocratic General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City, a position he still held at the time of Alfred's comment.

We often wondered why, unlike his illustrious compatriots Bruno Walter (an intimate of the Rose family), Otto Klemperer, and Arnold Schoenberg, Alfred had wound up in a cultural backwater like London, Ontario in the 1940s and 1950s. Sadly, just when Western's Music School was beginning to gain a reputation, Alfred was coming up for retirement. At one point. he volunteered that he was temperamentally unsuited for life in Toronto, which he characterized as "a hotbed of everything." Presumably, he would have been even more unsuited for life in New York or Los Angeles.

We knew something else about Alfred. We knew, from the fact of his being Gustav Mahler's nephew, that he had Jewish roots, although we also knew that he was an observant Roman Catholic. We also found out that, while he retained a tremendous nostalgia for Vienna, he harbored an intense dislike of Germany. One day, a colleague of mine praised a recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label. To our surprise, Alfred mused that. "Yes, the Germans are very good at manufacturing things... like gas chambers."

After graduating I didn't think too often about Alfred Rose (I was in only one of his classes during the four years I was at the school), until, in 1980, I witnessed the TV drama "Playing for Time," about the women's orchestra at Auschwitz. The script was by Arthur Miller and based on a book by Fania Fenelon, a French member of the orchestra. Vanessa Redgrave played Fania--a subject of much controversy, given Redgrave's well-known sympathy for the PLO--and Jane Alexander played Alma Rose, the orchestra's leader, a supporting role for which she won an Emmy. What astonished me at the time, given Alfred's meek and gentle nature, was the way in which Alma was portrayed as arrogant and autocratic to the point of brutishness. There was also the suggestion that she was admired by the SS rulers of the camp, including none other than the infamous Dr. Mengele, and that she was not a little flattered by this admiration. "No wonder," I thought, "that Alfred spoke so little about her."

I didn't think too much more about the Roses until this fall, when I noticed that one of the books being presented by its author at Jewish Book Fair was titled Alma Rose: Vienna to Auschwitz Of course, I made it my business to attend and to read the book. Remarkably, the author, Richard Newman, came to the subject in the same way in which I did, through Alfred. Mr. Newman had been a music critic on the staff of the London Free Press, a friend of Alfred's, and the executor of his estate. He relates that, shortly before his death in 1975, Alfred was shopping with his wife in an outdoor market in London. Overhearing his name, a woman asked if he was related to Alma Rose, the violinist at Auschwitz.

Alfred stared in disbelief. "Yes," he said. "Alma Rose was my sister. She led the woman's orchestra."

"Your sister saved the lives of many Jewish girls," came the grave reply.

The woman at the market was one of three Jewish Slovak sisters who had helped one another survive the death camp. They remembered Alma and the orchestra with gratitude--in those brutal circumstances, they said, each concert was an oasis of hope.

Alfred never recovered from the shock of his sister's death; he nursed his grief silently for more than three decades. In 1975, in his final weeks, he returned again and again to the consolation of the Slovak woman's words: Your sister saved the lives of many Jewish girls. Two days before he died, he spoke again of Alma. He had learned, he said, that she "saved many." In later years, many orchestra survivors would emotionally confirm her feat of courage. (9-10)

Richard Newman discovered a treasure trove of material stored in trunks in the Roses' basement, including letters from Alma, then in Nazi-occupied Holland, to her father Arnold in London and her brother Alfred in Cincinnati. Newman set out to discover what he could about Alma Rose, and the entire Rose family, a quest that took him 16 years and travels to many locations to interview dozens of people. The result is a fascinating book that gives us a glimpse into the life of a musical family, Jews who had completely assimilated into the life of the musical capital of Europe in the first years of the twentieth century. It also gives us a portrait of one of the members of this family, Alma, a gifted violinist and conductor, who, in an absurd and tragic twist of fate, got caught in the Nazi web. His account of the story of her final months in Auschwitz is a detailed response to the portrait painted by Fania Fenelon in "Playing for Time."

Alma's fate could have been otherwise. She and her father had escaped from Vienna to London, England in 1939 (her mother had died the year before), and Alfred and his wife, Maria, had managed to find their way to America. But Alma found it difficult to find work in England, and her boyfriend, a non-Jewish Austrian who had followed her to London, returned at his parents' behest to Vienna to take over the family printing business. Alma, despondent, went back to Europe, to Holland, which was then unoccupied and, she remembered, had managed to remain neutral in the first World War. She had great success playing concerts in Holland, and, even after the Nazi occupation, she let her British visa run out because of her popularity and the money she was making, which she sent to her father. As the situation for Jews in Holland became more precarious, she had good friends who tried to protect her and offered to hide her in their homes. But she preferred to try her luck at escaping by way of France to Switzerland. She wa s caught and shipped off to Auschwitz from Drancy, the collection camp near Paris, in July of 1943.

Alma Rose was born, in 1906, into a very different world. I mentioned that I knew that Alfred was Jewish on his mother's side. I didn't know that his father was also born a Jew, in Jassy, Romania, in 1863, and that the family name was originally Rosenblum. Arnold's parents, sensing the musical potential of their son (and also that of his brother, Eduard), moved to Vienna when he was four years old. The family prospered-Arnold's father became a well-to-do coach maker, the boys got a first class musical education, and, at the tender age of seventeen, Arnold was made concertmaster of the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic (in fact the same orchestra), a post he was to hold until the Anschluss over half a century later. He and Eduard also formed the city's- perhaps Europe's-preeminent string quartet. The brothers both took the name Rose. They also both married sisters of Gustav Mahler.

The Vienna of Emperor Franz Joseph was reasonably tolerant; the constitution of 1867 guaranteed "freedom of religion and conscience." But, in order to advance into the highest circles of artistic life in the city, it was necessary to be a Christian, preferably a Roman Catholic. Mahler converted to Catholicism in order to become director of the Court Opera in 1897. His sister Justine, Alma and Alfred's mother, converted along with him. Here's how she wrote to a friend about her attitude towards the process: "The whole affair is play-acting for me, since I don't believe a thing and could refute whatever [the priest] says. I memorize whole sections like poems in a foreign language" (28).

Arnold, also, like many Jewish members of the Philharmonic and Opera Orchestras, had himself baptized, only in his case into the Protestant Evangelical Church. It was into that church that his children were baptized. In 1933, upon marrying Maria Schmutzer, a Catholic, Alfred converted to that faith, and, at Justine's urging, so too did Alma. (There was some notion that this move would protect them from the growing Nazi threat.)

Arnold Rose and Justine Mahler were married on March 10, 1902, one day after the wedding of Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler, a woman twenty years younger than he, about whom much has been written. (After Mahler's death in 1911, she had an extended affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka, and then she went on to marry the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel.) Alfred Rose was born in December, 1902 and Alma Rose in November, 1906.

The Rose children grew up in idyllic circumstances. Vienna was the musical capital of the world, and they were the children of its musical aristocracy. The family employed English nannies, and so Alfred and Alma knew the English language fluently from their earliest years. Summers were spent in the country. Alfred studied composition in Berlin, with Arnold Schoenberg, among others, but became more known as a conductor and pianist, often accompanying his father's string quartet. He acted as their interpreter and manager on a tour of the United States in 1928.

Alma Rose decided to follow in her father's footsteps and become a violinist. She enjoyed some success as a soloist, often played together with her father, but never quite attained his stature. She found her niche in the early 1930s when she formed an all women's orchestra, the "Wiener Waltzermadeln," the Vienna Waltzing Girls. This was a touring orchestra of from 12 to 15 young women, mostly string players, but also including as many as two harpists, a pianist, and a vocalist. They specialized in what we would call light classical music by composers like Fritz Kreisler, Johann Strauss, Franz Lehar, Sarasate, and also the more popular pieces of Chopin, Dvorak, and Schubert The girls gave concerts in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, as well as in Austria. Their first out-of-town engagement was in Munich, in March of 1933. But Hitler had come to power in Germany in January, and the concert was canceled just hours before curtain time. The orchestra remained active until the Nazi takeover of Austria.

It was in 1930 that Alma Rose married Vasa Prihoda, a renowned Czech violinist. The marriage was not a great success. Perhaps professional jealousy played a role in its coming apart. Prihoda was away touring for long periods of time, as was Alma later on with the Waltzing Girls, and she never felt at home at Vasa's estate in Czechoslovakia. While Arnold liked him and admired his violin playing, Justine always considered him a bit uncouth. Prihoda divorced her in 1936. In 1938, Alma took up with Heini Saizer, heir to a Viennese paper and publishing conglomerate, who was not a musician. He was as quiet as Prihoda was outgoing, and he was eight years her junior. As I've mentioned, Heini left her while she was in England, and he eventually married another woman. "Alma," her father noted, "has no luck with men."

All of this--the musical household in which Alma grew up, her career as a young woman, her marriage--is well documented in Richard Newman's book and makes fascinating reading. So too do the years in which the Nazi threat becomes more and more palpable, until, immediately after the Anschluss, Arnold Rose is peremptorily forbidden from taking his seat as concertmaster of the Opera Orchestra after 57 years in the position. The story of his and his family's trials during the time that followed, culminating in his and Alma's escape to England, is riveting, as is the story of her return to Europe.

But it is the story of Alma's stay in Auschwitz that is most harrowing, and this story takes up roughly a third of the book. Alma arrived in Auschwitz in July of 1943, part of a convoy of a thousand prisoners sent out from Drancy, only 59 of whom would survive until the war's end. Alma and a small group of women who survived the first "selection" were sent, not to a work detail, but to Block 10, the notorious Experimental Block where Nazi doctors experimented with human subjects. This was about the worst place a woman could find herself at Auschwitz. But one of the prisoners there recognized Alma; they had played chamber music together at her home in Holland. Word got out that a famous violinist was in the camp. A women's orchestra had been formed at Birkenau shortly before, based on the Auschwitz men's orchestra, but it had been foundering for lack of direction. A violin was found for Alma, and, shortly thereafter, Alma found herself in possibly the best position a woman could have at Auschwitz, conductor of the women's orchestra.

The duties of the orchestra were primarily to perform as women prisoners went off each morning to their work details and as they returned in the evening. Richard Newman relates in great detail how the orchestra came to be formed and gives us glimpses of the personalities of the people involved in its formation. He has interviewed at length its surviving members. One of them describes the coming of Alma:

I shall never forget the day the SS brought Alma to the Music Block. She was placed in the third desk of the violins. She seemed to have difficulty seeing the notes.

That day she was merely introduced by the SS as a new member of the orchestra. The next day, the SS told the girls in the Music Block who Alma was, and that she was going to play something for them. She played, I think, Monti's "Czardas." We immediately realized she was really something. Then they announced that she was the new leader.

The orchestra was made up almost entirely of musical amateurs, and it was not a balanced symphony orchestra by any means. Some of its members played instruments like the mandolin and the accordion. There was but one flute player, one cellist, a bassist trained on the spot, and no brass players. Arranging the music for such an ensemble was one of the jobs Alma had to oversee. The sheet music itself was obtained, like the instruments, mostly from the luggage prisoners brought with them to the camp. (234)

Newman notes that

As the new kapo of the Music Block--in command of a barrack and an orchestra after less than a month at the camp-Alma joined a select, often despised company of prisoners. Many of her peers in the camp hierarchy were felons given their posts as block commanders by virtue of their willingness to follow SS orders and to show as much brutality to their underlings as the Nazis themselves. Alma's response to being elevated to this questionable position was to cling to her dignity and turn inward more than ever. Separating herself from those she considered unsavory, asserting her full authority over the orchestra, she focused with all the intensity of her nature on the musical work before her. (235)

To be in the orchestra was to gain privileges few other prisoners in the camp had: extra rations, exemption from the grueling-and often meaningless-work those others were forced to do. It was, in a very real sense, a lease on life. The survival of the orchestra depended on their playing well, at least well enough to satisfy those in charge of the camp. Alma dedicated herself to its survival. In Fania Fenelon's words, these women were literally "playing for time." Almost all of the women who joined the orchestra did survive the war. They believe that they owe their lives to Alma, and, in contrast to Fania Fenelon, they remember her kindly. They note that she accepted into her orchestra, and protected, women, especially Jewish women, of limited musical skills. True, she was extremely demanding, she had a temper, and she ruled her musicians with an iron hand; but in this way she behaved as most European conductors of the time behaved.

She also knew that a loss of concentration on the music at hand was unthinkable, if only because that would mean focusing on the world of the camp outside the Music Block, which was a world only of pain, suffering, and death. She never expelled anyone from the Music Block. Those who had to leave the orchestra for lack of musical skill became arrangers and music copyists. On many occasions, she stood up to the SS authorities and demanded that sick musicians be looked after and returned to the orchestra, even if these musicians were of limited talent. More than one survivor has credited her with saving her life.

Richard Newman has read extensively on the subject of Auschwitz, including the classic memoirs by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, and he spends much of the latter part of the book describing in great detail the camp and the routine life of prisoners there. We become aware of just how absurd it was to have an orchestra in that environment at all. In many ways, the orchestra was the only organization within the camp which represented the values of the world beyond its gates. One of the orchestra members recalled an evening after a particularly memorable concert: "How can I describe that evening, after the SS left the area. It was a link with the outside, with beauty, with culture-a complete escape into an imaginary and unattainable world.... In the truest sense, led by Alma, we lifted ourselves above the inferno of Birkenau into a sphere where we could not be touched by the degradation of concentration camp existence. On such an occasion, there was great closeness among us all" (262).

Alma did not survive. The circumstances of her death are somewhat mysterious, and they have been the subject of speculation since that time. Richard Newman explores the myths and ascertainable facts surrounding her death in great detail. Briefly, she attended a birthday party of a fellow kapo at Birkenau, itself a rather unusual occurrence, but we must remember that Alma was, officially, as the leader of a Block, a kapo. As such, she was given privileges ordinary prisoners would certainly not have. When she returned from the party, she fell violently ill and was taken to the hospital. She was attended by several physicians, including one who was a Jewish prisoner with whom she was particularly friendly, and others who were SS officers, including the infamous Dr. Mengele. She expired on April 5, 1944.

She was laid out, fully clothed, and the members of the orchestra were invited to come and pay their final respects-an unheard-of occurrence at Auschwitz. Her body was then taken for autopsy, since the camp authorities did not want to risk an outbreak of a possible infectious disease or food poisoning among their own who may also have attended the party. We will never know for sure, but the most likely cause of death was contaminated tinned food served at the party. Others who were there also got sick, but they recovered. Richard Newman notes the irony of Alma's death. She was in a death camp, but died of botulism, a common bacterial disease that kills people in peacetime.

Alma was replaced as orchestra leader by a semi-competent Russian woman, but things were never the same after Alma's demise. The SS reduced the conductor's authority and ordered the musicians to take on "useful work," including knitting and mending, in addition to their orchestra duties. Said one of the orchestra members: "After Alma died we were not so well off. She saved so many people from the gas room by finding them jobs with us and declaring them indispensable, even though they did not live in the Music Block with us. Alma used to fight for better conditions for us in every way, and she always succeeded" (307).

In late October, 1944, the Jewish girls in the orchestra were evacuated by cattle car to Bergen-Belsen (thus avoiding the death marches to the west, on which so many Auschwitz prisoners perished), while the non-Jewish personnel of the Music Block were transferred to the main camp at Auschwitz. On April 15, 1945, British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen. Richard Newman comments: "The outside world could never understand the depths of desolation the orchestra women had experienced, nor the magnitude of their peculiar good fortune. Because of Alma, they were not erased from the living; she had protected them from the extremes of degradation other prisoners had to endure. Most of the women of the Music Block survived and carried on with life as free women, although four and a half million others died at Auschwitz" (309).

In 1969, the Viennese named a street in their city after Alma Rose.

MICHAEL S. COLE has taught music and English at the high school level in Toronto for 32 years.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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