Online Journal

I showed her my scoring. She was reassured; now at last she was certain that I hadn't cheated her. Despite this easy beginning I was less at ease than she; it was important that too much shouldn't be asked of me. Yet that was just what Alma proceeded to do, somewhat dreamily. "Thanks to you, we'll be able to give real concerts.. Fénelon, 55
Fénelon, 55

The problem there was getting the music since we were mandolins, we were violins, only a few of whom could play. One of them was very good - the leader - the others were kids who'd learned a bit of violin and mandolin players. The average age was very young; there was an old lady in the orchestra, Frau Kroner [not Kröner, as Newman cites] whose sister was a cellist who'd died before I came - my good fortune that they needed a cello, but that's how life was in those days. The rest were just young people who somehow played an instrument. We had to get piano reductions of musicals, etc., that could be re-orchestrated for this funny mob of people. Alma was very capable of doing that, along with Lily Assael, who was later Murray Perriah's first piano teacher, a proper musician who was also older. But Alma was totally in command of what was going on there. She was perfectly capable of orchestrating, but she delegated the task to other people; she didn't need Fania. One of the worse things in Newman's book for me was that he says that Fania called together Anita, Violette, Fanny and Hélène, to tell us that she was writing a book about Alma. She didn't tell anybody that she was writing the book, if she had, it would never have come out! What she said was totally wrong.

Why do you think Fénelon wrote such a distorted history?

I took a calculated risk and said boldly: "Alma, couldn't you ask Frau Mandel for a little extra, a parcel for the girls or something? They're so hungry."Her face inscrutable, her lips pursed, she answered hissingly: "No! I refuse to ask for anything of them. They spoilt my concert last Sunday; I'd be ashamed." Fénelon, 103
Fénelon, 103

'We've all been wondering that, because in the camp, Fania was a very good person. We hated to attack her - in a way we were like a family and it was as if someone from that family had betrayed us. Fania was a very good musician, a sort of poor man's Edith Piaf but she sang and played the piano well. She was a communist and after the war, she lived in East Berlin where all she did was to play in clubs; she wasn't quite as good as some of the survivors - most of whom she attacked in the book. Personally, I feel that she suffered a suppressed envy of some of us, but I may be wrong.

'When we attacked her after the book came out, she said that she wanted to put into it everything that happened in the camp, regardless of whether it happened to the orchestra or not. At the time that the film came out, Fania said that none of the rest of us would speak about our experiences, which was utter rubbish. Alma is depicted as someone who was fearful of the SS. Maybe she was afraid; we all were, but she had a dignity about her. It is true that the SS called her Frau Alma and the way in which she was treated is unheard of. It wasn't because she was kowtowing to the SS - on the contrary. This is one of the positive things about Newman's book, in that she never changed. She was a very spoilt child and she was used to being Number One. I had a visit from one of the women who used to be in her Wiener Walzermädeln. She was a singer and she said that she was terrified of Alma. So, I don't think that Alma changed at all - she was a very aloof lady and we all tried hard to get her approval, or rather to avoid her disapproval.'

Alma was relentlessly strict, and gave us severe punishments for playing wrong notes. I remember that 1 had to wash the floor of the entire block for a whole week on my knees for playing badly. I had just returned from the Revier (the sick bay), where I had miraculously recovered from typhus. It was the type of typhus that was rampant in the camp. Commonly known as 'Flecktyphus', it was transmitted by lice. If you had been fortunate enough to recover from it, or escape the 'selection' which was made regularly in the Revier, it left you unbelievably weak, and usually with impaired eyesight and hearing for a while. I myself returned to the Music Block in such a deplorable state and had duly been punished by Alma for my inadequacies…I could not say that I loved Alma for this. In fact I was furious and hated her. But strange though this may sound, I now have nothing less than the greatest admiration for Alma's attitude. Lasker-Wallfisch, 78
Lasker-Wallfisch, 78

Describing Alma Rosé as almost headmistress-like, Anita succinctly places her in context: 'We in the orchestra feel very much in defence of Alma, although we didn't necessarily like her, but we were very aware that it was her who helped us to survive. We don't want to see her reputation tarnished since we have so much to thank her for. The moment she was dead, the Germans lost interest in us. For a while, we still played ok, but the discipline soon broke down; Alma kept tremendous discipline and she made us very frightened of her. She was like a horse with blinkers and she made us blinkered as well. God forbid that anyone should look outside and see what was happening. One of the girls saw someone she knew being taken towards the gas chamber, and she started to cry. Alma wasn't going to have any of it and she gave her a slight slap. She's still alive, and she said in a television interview that "I was never really cross with Alma. I understood what she was doing."'

There was an orchestra in existence before Alma's arrival. Could you say something about that - understandably Newman is quite scant in his treatment of it, but it also has a bearing on what the general standards were like and why Alma was such a Godsend?

'It was in existence in a very embryonic fashion well before I arrived, but by all accounts it was terrible-then the news came that Alma was in Auschwitz I's Block 10, just about to experimented on by Clauberg, so she was brought to Birkenau. Before Alma, Zofia Tschaikowska was the conductor. People were scathing about her because they thought that she was only in charge because of her name. She had been, in fact, a music teacher before the war, but she didn't have the same abilities as Alma. She stayed on as a block senior once Alma was in charge.'

The average age of the girls in the orchestra was quite young, but Alma was considerably older. Newman suggests that she was protecting herself by becoming aloof. You're suggesting that she was protecting everybody by sheltering them from what was going on outside the walls of your block.

I am still not sure whether she took a premeditated line or acted on instinct. But with this iron discipline she managed to focus our attention away from what was happening outside the block, away from the smoking chimneys and the profound misery of life in the camp, to an F which should have been an F# ...Perhaps this was her way of trying to keep sane, and by involving us all in her frenzied pursuit of perfection in our performances of the rubbish we played she may well have been instrumental in helping us to keep sane ourselves. There is no doubt that we owe Alma the greatest debt of gratitude. Lasker-Wallfisch, 78
Lasker-Wallfisch, 78

'Yes. With her almost ludicrous pursuit of musical perfection, she diverted our attention away from what was actually going on. I don't know whether that was her intention because she was like that - she escaped into trying to do whatever we were doing very well.'

Wasn't the orchestra something on a paradox? With the obvious horrors that were going on, the lack of human dignity and brutality meted out by the Germans, there was still a pretence, a fantasy if you like, about having an orchestra.

'The whole thing was a fantasy. It was ludicrous to have an orchestra in a place like that, but since then I have learned that there was an orchestra in practically every camp, even in the tiny sub-camps that belonged to Auschwitz, there was a band. The only difference between us and others was that we were full-time - the others had to go and do work and then play in the evening. The orchestra became the showpiece of the camp. If somebody came to visit, we would be shown off.

Problems? Comments? Suggestions? Contact Us.
Site coded by passive.
Copyright © Bridgewater Multimedia 2001.