The Germans were very keen on order and our function was to play marches: thousands of people left the camp every day to work, for which we played so that they marched in step. Of the accounts I have read, many have said how fantastic it was to hear music, even from a distance. Not everybody read it like that: I was shown a book that Newman mentions (see left), which quotes Charlotte Delbo, who said that it was terrible to have an orchestra. For some people it was an offence.
'It is very difficult to compare the music block with an ordinary one, partly because every one of us had a function and were irreplaceable. In an ordinary block, when someone was dead it didn't matter because there were always new people coming to take their places, but there was nobody who could take my place in the orchestra - not everyone played an instrument. Had we been replaceable, we would have been through the chimney. That was our big privilege. She took as many as she could and, by means of her ability, kept them alive.
'The standard of the orchestra was totally acceptable, especially when considering the material Alma was working with. Her highest praise was, "we could play this to my father." I have often been asked how we sounded - I can't really remember it, but we sounded a lot less acceptable once Alma had gone and the SS lost interest in us. We were more or less reprieved again after the Hungarian transports arrived, because with them came Lili Marthé who had a gypsy orchestra before the war; interest was revived so we functioned a little bit longer - we started being given other work, we had to mend socks and things like that. But with Alma gone, we were more or less leaderless.'
What of the information that Newman uses? Helen Spitzer Tichauer (known also as Zippy) certainly seems to be an important source, but she seems to have been relied on rather too much.
'Zippy was working in the camp office and apparently she was also playing in the orchestra - but none of us remember her. She comes out with a whole lot of information. Now although my memory is not all that good for detail and I had my own method of survival by not seeing things, she says that we got double rations, but I cannot remember that; I rang up my friend Violette recently and asked her if we got extra food. "Of course not" she said, "we got just the same as everybody else." However, in B Lager, everybody got three times a week what was called Zulage, a little more margarine or sausage. Newman got this information from only one person - he should have checked with other survivors. If we had all got double rations, we wouldn't have been so hungry all the time!
'Newman is quite liberal with some of his information. Although Alma's character comes out pretty well correct, the details of the camp are not. But this is really only of interest to us, not to this generation: what does it matter if someone was a copyist or a fiddle player? Details written in such a sensational way do not really alter the terrible things that happened there. Some errors are slight, such as wrong names. Others I have mentioned. There is also the account of Mala Zimmetbaum and Edek Kalinsksi escaping for a single night of freedom before their recapture [and subsequent execution] (353) which is well-documented elsewhere. They had much more than a single night, they were out for at least a fortnight. Importantly, he states that I referred to the difference between the orchestra before and after Alma's arrival as being the difference between night and day (260). I didn't say this - I wasn't there, I never knew the orchestra before Alma.'
It seems that Newman didn't have all that much to say about Alma once the camp story begins. The second part of the book is obviously not as well documented as the first, and it seems that he is making up for this with gossip and unnecessary sensationalist information concerning camp life.
'He had nothing to say. He got the information from us and then misused it; when the book came out, we were all sent copies of it and one of the girls in the Polish contingent contacted me. She was furious! "How can he write that Zophia played the violin and was a notenschreiber? (229, 382). She wasn't - so where does it come from? He also writes that Fanny was singing. Fanny was a mandolin player, she didn't sing. But to me, the moment that anything is incorrect in a book, everything is suspect.'
Certainly, the early part of the book demonstrates this, and treats her somewhat with disdain. By the time that she was arrested I have to admit to having lost all patience with her - she had a way out with an entry visa to England, but she never took the opportunity it provided. Again and again, she had to do one last concert which to me was outrageously stupid behaviour. But slowly, as you become aware of what was going on in the camp, you start to see another side of her character, one that cares not only for her own survival, but for others' as well. Newman's biography very carefully shows that from what one might see as a selfish immaturity comes a sense of dignity and self-respect that, given different circumstances might never have arisen. If from this point alone, the disdain with which she was treated by Fénelon is whitewashed, then Alma Rosé: Vienna to Auschwitz is important testimony.
'I am very grateful to Alma, and I am pleased that we are able to clean up the negative image that some people have given her without making her into a saint - she certainly wasn't evil. She didn't bully us by saying that we would go to the gas chamber if we played badly, they would put us in there when they were ready to. Alma pretended that only good playing mattered, she was a very dignified person and that gave us dignity, the dignity that comes from doing things well. The book demonstrates quite clearly that from her upbringing she was spoiled, expected things from other people - before Auschwitz, when people took her in and gave her asylum, she behaved exactly the way she wanted. It wasn't good behaviour.'
Despite her own mysterious death, Alma Rosé's story is one that should live on: her role in saving four-dozen people from death at the hands of the Nazis is perhaps as important as that of Oskar Schindler, whose own biography is depicted so well in Steven Spielberg's 1995 film. As with Schindler's List or Anne Franck's Diary, Newman's biography allows us to get to know many of the individuals involved in this awful, yet remarkable history. If only for this reason, Newman's book is compelling and excellent reading.
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