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by Richard Newman with Karen Kirtley

Amadeus Press ISBN 1-57467-051-4

Nothing can prepare a parent for the death of his or her own child, and it is the more poignant and unbearable should it occur when the offspring has attained adulthood. Arnold Rosé (1863-1946) was a father who had to endure such an unnatural event very late in his long life. He was for years the Concertmaster or Leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, fulfilling the dual role of leading its concerts and performances at the Vienna Court Opera. Barely 18 years of age when he was appointed back in Hans Richter’s day by Wilhelm Jahn, he held the post for an incredible 57 years, from 1881 until he was ousted by the Nazis in 1938. Even more impressive was the fact that he led the Rosé Quartet for 62 years from 1882 to 1944, by which time it was playing in exile in war-time Britain. As if such a musical pedigree was not enough, he was also Mahler’s brother-in-law, having married the composer’s sister Justine the day after Mahler married his wife Anna in March 1902. The Rosé’s daughter Alma, the subject of this biography, was named after Mahler’s wife. Bruno Walter, Mahler’s amanuensis and torchbearer for decades, became a family friend, ‘Uncle Bruno’ to Alma Rosé.

Alma and her brother Alfred (destined for a conducting career until political events changed the course of his life too) grew up among an enviable circle of musicians. Her wartime (1916) autograph books reveal a litany of mouth-watering names such as singers Leo Slezak, Lotte Lehmann, Selma Kurz and Maria Jeritza, conductors Furtwängler and Mengelberg, the pianist Backhaus, and composers Schoenberg, Korngold, Pfitzner, and Richard Strauss. Alma made her debut in 1926 playing Bach’s double violin concerto alongside her father, her talent as yet unripe but discernible. The following year she met her future husband, Czech violinist Váša Príhoda, although Rudolf Bing or Walter Slezak might well have won her, either of whom would have changed the course of her life, if not saved it. This is indeed a story of what ifs? or if onlys? Alma built herself a nice career as a performer and in the 1930s founded and led a women’s touring orchestra which did her reputation a lot of good. When the Rosé family (Justine having died) found itself caught unawares by the progress of Nazism, she showed huge courage in getting her family out of Austria, her father Arnold to Britain and brother Alfred to America. From Britain she chose to return to Europe, in fact to Holland on 26 November 1939, nearly three months after war was declared, an act which would ultimately cost her her life. Her decision was taken because she had an opportunity to work, albeit leading an ensemble at the Grand Hotel Central in Amsterdam. Back in London she could have been part of her father’s famous quartet, now giving concerts as part of Myra Hess’s hugely popular National Gallery lunchtime concerts, but she was too proud and independent to admit that her decision to return had been wrong. At first even her father understood and wrote that he was ‘very proud of you and admire you. You have been possessed by Mahler’s spirit, for in my family there never were such dynamic people’. But when the Germans suddenly invaded as far as Dunkirk, the situation changed dramatically and Alma was trapped. Her brother never heard from her again after Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941) and a year later (14 December 1942) she sent a last communication via the Red Cross to her father in England, saying in a veiled message of reassurance, ‘Justine’s daughter is married’ (which he took to mean that she was being ‘looked after’). Her Guadagnini violin was entrusted to a friend for safekeeping. Too late, she decided to flee for she was so concerned for the safety of Dutch friends who sheltered her, that she could not live with the possibility that her actions might endanger them or their families. She tried to get to Switzerland but it was hopeless, and in Dijon after only five days on the run she was betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo on a train.

After a few months in the concentration camp at Drancy, she was transported to Auschwitz on 18 July 1943 in Convoy 57 consisting of a thousand captives, 522 men and boys, 430 women and girls, 48 of unspecified sex. Of this number only 59 would survive until war ended in 1945, and Alma Rosé was not destined to be among them. The rest of this enthralling book is devoted to the rigours, routines and horrors of life in Auschwitz. Despite the clarity and detail the book contains, existence in this living nightmare was so grim and tenuous, that it becomes unimaginable to the reader. As one SS doctor put it, ‘you have to realise that murdering people became as natural as carrying out the routine jobs you have to do every day’, whilst an inmate recalled that ‘we were there to die and not to live’. To survive Alma fell on the only two strengths in her armoury, her personality and her music. The latter was put to use because the women’s camp had a fledgling orchestra, modelled on a similar one in the men’s, but at the time of her arrival its survival, and that of its members, depended on someone to give it direction and bring about a serious improvement in its musical standards. What it did not lack was instruments, of which there were many among the possessions brought by the hundreds of thousands of victims each week, and dumped unceremoniously by the trackside as they descended from trains of cattle wagons before being sorted into two groups, those immediately condemned and those for whom death was merely postponed. Average life expectancy at Auschwitz was a matter of months, not years. As soon as she arrived, Alma began to organise cabarets among the members of Experimental Block 10 where she was housed, and the SS soon deemed her talents too precious and transferred her to head the orchestra, the brainchild from its inception during the spring of 1943 of the notorious SS officer Maria Mandel. The instruments of the Auschwitz orchestra consisted of violins, mandolins, guitars, two cellos, double bass, flute, recorder and piccolo, accordions, percussion, piano for rehearsal purposes only, and varying numbers of singers and music copyists. During its existence between April 1943 and October 1944 the orchestra had three conductors, Alma being its second for eight months from August 1943 until April 1944.

Its first conductor, violinist Zofia Czajkowska, knew the orchestra had a better chance of survival under the direction of a professional musician of the calibre of Alma, and she stood aside to allow her to be appointed as kapo, or block chief, and set about her task. She literally had life and death control over its members as the Music Block became a doorway to life in the words of its accordionist Flora Schrijver Jacobs (150 women applied for the position from whom she was picked at a final audition). During Alma’s tenure the ensemble improved its sound and broadened its repertoire to include classics such as Strauss waltzes, despite the fact that few of its members were trained musicians. Alma was a hard taskmaster, continually striving for improvement and constantly admonishing the slightest lapse when the playing fell short of her high expectations. When all else failed, her watchword was ‘if we don’t play well, we’ll go to the gas’, to which there was no answer. Yet she also took risks, such as a disguised version of the banned music of the Jewish Mendelssohn (for example his violin concerto), as well as producing from memory rescored versions of familiar music (such as Beethoven’s Pathétique piano sonata arranged for three violins and cello by one of the members, Fania Fénelon). The orchestra’s duties were several. Twice a week and weather permitting they would take their stools and music stands to play outside the hospital block, on a daily basis they had to play for the morning departure and evening arrival of the work detail as they passed through the camp gates, and finally they had to play to the whims and demands of their torturers. Between such duties the orchestra practised constantly, as much as ten hours each day.

Alma’s death took place on 5 April 1944; she had been ill for three days. Ironically the Nazi doctors, including the notorious Josef Mengele, did everything possible to save her but to no avail. What killed her remains a mystery, though botulism remains the most likely cause. She had attended a birthday party for a privileged prisoner and it may have been as a result of something she ate or drank, although perceived wisdom is that, as a camp veteran, she would have been too wary of poor quality alcohol. Privileged even on her deathbed, she died in a private room, separated from other sick and dying prisoners. Even Maria Mandel mourned her passing and, in an unprecedented move, announced that the members of the orchestra could visit the hospital block to bid farewell to their dead conductor. Her successor was the Ukrainian pianist and music copyist Sonya Winogradowa, but she was unable to sustain either Alma’s musical discipline or quality of playing, neither did the SS grant her the authority they had afforded to Alma. By October 1944 the Jewish girls in the orchestra were evacuated to Belsen and the non-Jews to the main camp at Auschwitz, and the orchestra effectively ceased to exist.

Although four and half million perished at Auschwitz, most of the women in the Music Block survived, but not Alma Rosé. Her father lived long enough to hear news of her death, and his own followed shortly thereafter, and today a few survivors keep her memory alive and have written their own memoirs.

Richard Newman’s well-researched book is a compelling read despite the inevitable anaesthetising effect produced by the numbers of new arrivals of transported prisoners and their inevitable despatch to the gas chambers. It does not take long before death becomes as expected as life does in ‘normal’ times today. There are the frustrations of no recordings of Alma’s pre-war playing career, and the greater ones when reading of her decision to leave the safety of Britain for Europe (she was clearly taken in by the effects of the so-called phoney war) or not to flee back when, even at the last moment, she might have saved herself. Her pre-war 1757 Guadagnini violin did survive. In a twist of irony, during the 1980s its sound could be heard among the string section of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, whose General Manager Rudolf Bing had been Alma’s suitor for a while before the war. Her native Vienna has marked her life with a street named after her but this book is a more fitting testimonial.

Christopher Fifield

See also review by Tony Duggan


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