Online Journal

Richard Newman with Karen Kirtley
Amadeus Press
ISBN 1-57467-051-4

How does one assess books that deal with events as horrific as the holocaust? I refer to modern history, of events that happened only a few years before my birth. The magnitude of atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis ensures that both survivors and modern historians meticulously record the events of the war years. The stories one hears are harrowing, yet are somehow detached from reality; we did not know these people and shall never be able to put their suffering into context. Often such accounts are blunted, especially today since the last world war seems so long ago, its victims an older generation and its brutalities extreme. It feels so unreal that we are able to distance ourselves from the victims and pretend they never existed: we did not know these wretched souls, only of them.

"I tell you it is not a sanatorium you have come to but a German concentration camp from which the only exit is up the chimney. If anyone doesn't like it, he can throw himself against the high tension wires straightaway. If there are any Jews in the convoy, they are not entitled to live more than two weeks; priests have one month of life and the remainder three months."At that moment, if not before, the new arrivals realized that the pervasive smell at Auschwitz was charred human flesh. Newman, 218
Newman, 218

Despite the number of television documentaries shown on concentration camps, their doctors, guards and inmates, visual portrayals have the ability to suppress feelings of revulsion and a part of the psyche allows us to retreat behind our remote controls, pretend that it never happened. Persecutors went home to their wives, played with their children and prayed in church. For them, nothing was unusual. Later, a few were hanged for their crimes, but many more escaped, some of whom are still at large. But although a few are still being brought to justice, rather than condemnation we hear comments such as let sleeping dogs lie or it was such a long time ago. What we see now is a kindly old man, like one's grandfather, with a personal side that is difficult to ignore, with wives, children and grandchildren. We can almost feel sorry for these men because we have seen their personal side.

This is what makes eyewitness accounts of the holocaust so important, for without these, we will never really know the faceless masses who were slaughtered and, because of this one reason, Newman's book Alma Rosé: from Vienna to Auschwitz is important literature. Twenty years in the making, it presents not only relatively balanced eyewitness testimonies, but also provides detailed and often moving accounts of Rosé's life before and during her incarceration.

Alma's story first came to public attention through the 1980 film, Playing for Time, and adaptation by Arthur Miller of Fania Fénelon's book, The Musicians of Auschwitz. Born into a Viennese musical dynasty, the daughter of Arnold Rosé, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and Opera Orchestras, and leader of the Rosé Quartet; her mother was Justine, Gustav Mahler's sister, her godmother and namesake was Alma Mahler and her "Uncle Bruno," a lifelong family friend.

Alma Rosé with the Wiener Walzermädeln in the 1930's
Alma Rosé with the Wiener Walzermädeln in the 1930's

Her childhood potential was never quite fulfilled, but despite this, she was independently minded, and in the 1930s founded and led a women's touring orchestra, the Wiener Walzermädeln. Like many other "assimilated Jews", she and her family were caught off-guard by the rise of Nazism, and with her father fled to England, only to return to the Continent to continue her career in Holland. There she was ultimately captured by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she led the camp orchestra, moulding a collection of young and inexperienced musicians into a band that became a means of survival. Rosé saved the lives of some four-dozen members of the orchestra and although none was gassed, she was to die suddenly in April 1944.

I met with Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a member of the Auschwitz women's orchestra and author of her own camp memoirs, Inherit the Truth [published in 1996 by Giles de la Mare], to discuss her reminiscences of Alma Rosé and evaluate Newman's biography in light of her and Fénelon's book.

Let us start by looking at the opening story. It's not all that unusual, but rather the story that many musicians might be able to tell, of struggling to make ends meet, giving concerts that are sometimes acclaimed, sometimes derided. In fact, it seems that the whole function of this biography is to centre on the Auschwitz element, without which, it might even be a story that is not worth telling. Newman is clear that her early forays into music as a soloist didn't work and that she wasn't too highly regarded.

Alma Rosé with Vàša Prihoda
Alma Rosé with Vàša Prihoda

'I'm sorry about that because I think she was an extremely good violinist. But she was of the days when it really wasn't the done thing for a woman to be a concert musician. Nevertheless, she was a very good player-maybe in comparison with Vàša Prihoda, who was a sort of wiz kid of the fiddle, she wasn't. But look where she played, they were second-rate venues. She lived in the shadow of her father whose reputation was fearsome. In the camp, she talked about him continually, almost to obsession: we heard more about him than anyone else.'

Alma is portrayed badly in Fénelon's book, which reads very much like a distorted fantasy in which she plays the hero.

'All the people who are still alive are all in defence of Alma, so most of us were prepared to collaborate with Newman in his work because we were so horrified at the defamation of Alma by Fénelon: Fénelon wasn't important and in her book she changed roles with Alma. Alma was the one who we know had a first class musical education, a fantastic musical background and it is offensive to put in print that Alma was so relieved that somebody came who could finally do the orchestrations.

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