Rachela was immediately taken to the location of the Auschwitz-Birkenau women’s orchestra. Alma Rosé, a prominent Viennese violinist and conductor (or “Kapellmeister”) of the group, gave her some music/notes and instructed her to play. She remembers: “I didn’t remember of course, how to read it. I knew a little bit about notes, but I had forgotten about the rhythm. So I sat next to a Greek women, and this Greek woman told me how to play after Alma Rosé told her: ‘You show her how to play!’” The “Greek woman” was called Julie Stroumsa and was one of the forty musicians who had joined the orchestra on their arrival. The women, most of them Jewish, came from all over Europe and spoke many languages. There were also non-Jews from Poland, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Julie helped Rachela learn the new notes: “As she played – I have a good ear for music – I caught the rhythm immediately. Julie was giving me the rhythm; she simply helped me to stay in the orchestra.” She was permitted to join as a mandolin player, and given her instrument, later concluding that “In general, this was a real orchestra with many qualified musicians.” They practiced daily, performing at the will of the camp guards:
“In the morning, we stood for Appell [roll call] inside the block. To avoid it, we sat all day and played, and we were having rehearsal and another rehearsal and more rehearsal. And always there were visitors of SS men, Gestapo men, whoever were in the camp. The entire orchestra was the “baby” of [Franz] Hössler. He loved the orchestra.”
In addition to the regular Sunday concerts for the SS, the orchestra also performed for Nazi officers, who could request a concert at a moment’s notice.
Rachela describes Alma Rosé as a stern woman, who ran a tight ship with her performers, and worked them hard: “For every mistake that someone did in the orchestra, we had to stand silently as a punishment. Alma heard; she heard everything. No one could hear as well as she did. Who was as expert as she?” She often used curt language and expressions to express her frustration with their playing. Alma played first violin accompanied by a teenage girl who played second violin. The group performed a variety of musical numbers by Saraste, Monti, Czardash, Beethoven, and waltzes by Strauss. Alma would correct them if they were “missing the swing”, reminding them that before the war she had practiced for “eight hours a day” at the wrath of her father. According to Rachela, Alma would forget where she was when she was playing. She was also not afraid to go against the wishes of the SS, testing the limits of their patience by performing forbidden songs, adapting them with her own lyrics. The group was forced to play chansons and light music, and to translate any foreign pieces into German – the only language permitted.
However, not all members of the group shared this sentiment, and did not care if there were small mistakes given the circumstances in which they found themselves. Like Rachela, they were not all professionals, and did not bear the same level of passion or skill as others in the orchestra. There was also “professional jealousy” among the women, especially between those who had had fruitful careers in music before the war. But, for those who were not so enthused about the performances, it passed the time and ultimately saved many of their lives: “We always thought of one thing: that some day this will be over, that some day this will come to an end, for better or worse.” Despite the more questionable elements of Alma’s character, Rachela remembered her as a “fantastic conductor” who truly succeeded in making something of their orchestra. Indeed, Alma even had dreams of starting an orchestra together after the war.
In exchange for their talents, they received slightly better living conditions than other inmates. The women lived together and formed a close bond, although several testimonies recall tensions between the Jewish and non-Jewish members, as well as jealously from other camp inmates of their privileges. The musicians’ barracks had its own toilet, heater and practising rooms. The oven helped protect the instruments from cold and moisture. However, they were not exempt from the fate of those around them. They often witnessed killings and the violent torture of prisoners. Moreover, their block was close to the gas chambers and crematorium, and they could hear children crying out for their mothers and Jewish youth singing “Hatikvah.” On one occasion, one of the musicians became sick with typhus and was taken to the “hospital”, only to be killed in the crematorium. According to Rachela, Alma Rosé was deeply concerned that this would happen again, and informed the authorities: “Listen, you are destroying the orchestra! If there is typhus in the camp and each time you will take one of the girls, then…” After this incident, an order was issued forbidding anyone to touch a member of the orchestra. As Rachela noted: “They established the orchestra not for us, they made the orchestra for themselves.”
This new “rule” was put to the test when Rachela herself contracted the disease. In a gut-wrenching interaction with infamous SS-Doctor Josef Mengele, he stood next to her and asked what was wrong with her, but the workers in the infirmary informed him that she was part of the orchestra, and he continued on his way. On this encounter with Mengele, she earnestly described him as “Gorgeous. What a man! He was like a movie star, young, handsome. We all knew him.” Fortunately, she recovered and resumed her role in the group. The orchestra played every morning for the female prisoners as they were marched to their labour assignments, stating that it aided the Nazis with their efficiency:
“Let’s say, you can imagine a whole camp goes out to work. Imagine how slow they would march without the orchestra. They marched according to the march tune’s rhythm. What went there in one hour could have lasted for several hours…So they placed us forward, near the gate. Every morning we sat and played the march when they went out to work.”
Their presence also gave strength to those who heard the music. At the same time, the upbeat welcome deceived new arrivals: a deliberate move of the camp authorities. The women’s orchestra also included singers, such as a Russian paratrooper who arrived at the camp with her “comrade”, who was a talented pianist. There was also a German soprano opera singer named Doris Wilamowska – “a prima donna of the opera of Berlin” – who had a tremendous voice. Even during a bout of typhus, the SS took her from her sickbed to perform for visiting members of the Gestapo and, barely able to stand, she managed to sing a song by Sarasate. Rachela painfully recalled another instance in which Yvette Assael, a Greek bass player and sister of Julie, began to cry when she saw the condition of the prisoners marching. A member of the Gestapo approached her and said “Everyone must smile. You are forbidden to cry here!”
Remarkably, she saw her brother twice during her incarceration. She did not immediately recognise him; his time there had left him “skinny and broken”, but he recognised his sister. In a desperate meeting, he asked her to send him bread; she ran to her block to get some and when she returned, he was gone. Since his arrival in Auschwitz, he had been part of a labour unit working outside of the camp. However, after the large arrival of Hungarian Jews in 1944, he was selected as part of the new “Sonderkommando”. Through her connections in the orchestra, she tried everything she could to help him, to no avail. They communicated via letters, which she hid in the ground near to her block. These letters were never found.
Alma Rosé eventually met her untimely death in the camp. According to the testimony of Rachela, she was poisoned – possibly by order of the camp authorities. The mystery surrounding her death continues to this day. After her death, one of the Russian musicians took over as conductor, but the orchestra did not continue as before. Rachela expected that she too would die in Auschwitz. She remained in touch with her brother throughout, who knew that his Sonderkommando unit was due to be killed. Although it was only after the war that she learned specific information from other survivors that her brother was killed during the Sonderkommando uprising on 7th October 1944, when Jewish prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV revolted. She painfully recalled: “They captured one of the SS guards and threw him into the oven and they blew up the crematorium. And immediately [German] reinforcements arrived and they took all of the guys. They died slowly, by gas.”
As the events of the war progressed and German defeat became imminent, the SS authorities sought to relocate prisoners back to Germany to avoid the approaching Russian army. On 1st November, she and other Jewish members of the orchestra were gathered for roll-call, given a coat and some bread, and placed directly on a train wagon, not knowing where they were headed. On the 2nd November 1944, Rachela arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.