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?
'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.'
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.
'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.
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