Few have been born with a musical pedigree to match that of Alma Rosé. Her father was Arnold Rosenblum, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, who changed his name to Rosé in 1882 and founded the internationally-renowned Rosé quartet. Her mother, Justine Mahler, was the younger sister of the Jewish composer Gustav Mahler. Rosé grew up surrounded by the musical stars of early 20th-century Germany and Vienna. In 1930, the 24-year-old married Váša Příhoda, a brilliant young Czech violinist. A few years later she founded a touring women’s orchestra called the Viennese Waltzing Girls; they were so popular that even in the years of the Great Depression they made a substantial profit. This success came to an end, however, when Hitler came to power in 1933. Realising the potential consequences of this political turn, Alma’s brother and sister-in-law fled to the US, leaving Alma behind to care for her father. After successfully moving both herself and her father to safety in London, she moved to Holland to continue her musical career. She built up fame as a virtuoso violin talent, and successfully toured mainland Europe during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Her luck came to an end when she was arrested in France and sent to Drancy for several months. In July 1943, she was transported to Auschwitz.
Upon arrival in Auschwitz, Rosé was sent to the medical experimentation block. Because she was registered under her Dutch second husband’s name, Nazi officials did not realise who she was. When a request was made for a violinist for a VIP’s birthday celebration, however, she so impressed the guards with her virtuosity that she was promptly transferred to Birkenau, and, in August 1943, made conductor of the women’s orchestra there. She was respected by the SS staff and, in particular, became the protégé of the SS guard Maria Mandel. She requested a special barracks for the orchestra, which contained a living and a practising area, with a wooden floor to protect the instruments against the cold and wet. In addition, she successfully petitioned to end the requirement of playing in the snow and rain. While before she arrived, the women’s orchestra had only had access to the Auschwitz men’s orchestra’s scores, Rosé convinced some of the SS officers to provide additional sheet music. Former orchestra members (with the notable exception of Fania Fénelon) agreed, however, when she did not pander to the SS — for example, she was famous for stopping her music if the guards were not paying attention — but dealt with them as a professional and a musician.
Replacing the Polish music teacher Zofia Czajkowska as conductor of the orchestra, Rosé immediately began to work on the ensemble’s quality. She challenged Czajkowska’s favouring of Polish women and had the lesser musicians removed, although she consistently endeavoured to keep less talented players on as employees and assistants rather than simply firing them (a life-saving gesture in the context of Auschwitz). In contrast to her predecessor, Rosé was a strict and thorough taskmistress, pushing her musicians to the limits of their endurance. They usually had eight hours of rehearsal, in addition to playing at the camp gates morning and evening. Generally, however, she was respected by her orchestra, valued as much for her violin playing as her conducting. Above all, she understood that to survive they had to please the SS — and she did not have luxury of professional musicians in her orchestra, so she pushed the mostly amateur musicians very hard. She also pushed herself as hard as the orchestra, full of faith that, if they played well enough, they would be allowed to live.
Rosé’s strict discipline resulted in a rapid and dramatic improvement in the orchestra’s quality. The repertoire also increased substantially, expanding from the previous staples of German marches and Polish folk songs to a wide range of classical repertoire. She arranged pieces for her orchestra from whatever sheet music she had available, or from melodies that she recalled from memory, including works by Mozart, Schubert, Vivaldi, Schubert, Johann Strauss and Franz Liszt, as well as German hits and music from movies and operettas. Her absorption in the orchestra made some musicians feel as if
she lived in another world. Music to her meant her love and her disappointments, her sorrow and her joy, her eternal longing and her faith, and this music floated high above the camp atmosphere.
As the orchestra improved under her leadership, so the demands placed upon the musicians increased. In addition to their twice-daily marches, they were required to perform regular Sunday concerts for selected prisoners and the camp staff, make regular visits to the infirmary, play during elite visits to the camp and be available for individual SS demands.
Alma Rosé’s final concert was at a private SS party on 2 April 1944. Suddenly and inexplicably ill, she was taken to the hospital with head and stomach pains and a high fever, and on 4 April 1944 she was declared dead. Her death itself remains controversial, with speculation as to its causes ranging from suicide to poisoning by jealous functionaries, although many insist that she fell victim to accidental food poisoning or a sudden infection. In honour of her unique status, upon her death the SS approved a solemn celebration in her memory —perhaps the only occasion in the history of the camps that SS officers honoured a dead Jewish prisoner. The body was draped in a simple white cloth and surrounded with flowers. For the musicians, however, grief was mixed with fear, as former member Silvia Wagenberg remembered:
When she died, I thought, now it’s over; either they will send us somewhere else — then we’re done for, or we’ll be gassed right away. It is hardly measurable, what Alma meant for the orchestra.