Alma Rose born in Vienna in 1906 was an Austrian violinist of Jewish descent. She died in 1944 in Auschwitz probably of food poisoning. Alma’s father was Arnold Rose the violinist who was leader of theVienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1881 until 1931. Her uncle was the composer Gustav Mahler.
Alma was born to be a violinist, her father taught her to play and when she was 24 she married the Czech virtuoso violinist Vasa Prihoda. This marriage however lasted only 5 years before being dissolved.
In 1932 she founded The Waltzing Girls of Vienna an all girl orchestra. The Waltzing Girls were very successful even having the blessing of her father. Her older brother, Alfred, was a noted pianist, composer and conductor.
Life was good until 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria.
When Austria was annexed the Rose family were fully assimilated, even converting to Christianity. This however did not help them against the wave of anti-Semitism running through the country. Her father lost his position with the orchestra and in the same year his wife died. Alfred managed to flee with his wife first to Holland and then to Canada where he spent the rest of his life.
Alma managed to get her father to England just before the outbreak of war. Alma misguidedly believed that her Czech passport would keep her safe and she returned to mainland Europe to play, mainly in Holland and Belgium. She was very successful for a time but when the Low Countries were overrun she had to flee. Despite a rushed marriage to an Aryan Dutchman she was almost arrested by the Nazis. From Holland she fled to Switzerland.
Alma Rose never made it to Switzerland, betrayed she was picked up by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She spent several months at the transit camp in Drancy (just outside Paris, France) before being transferred to Auschwitz in July 1943. Upon arrival it wasn’t long before it was discovered who she was and she was put in charge of the camp’s orchestra. The orchestra contained an odd mix of instruments but Alma moulded it into an excellent ensemble. The members of the orchestra were better looked after than the rest of the inmates although conditions were still poor. They did receive some medical treatment though which was unheard of for everyone else.
There were two other professional musicians in the Auschwitz orchestra at this time; Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Cellist and Fania Fenelon, vocalist and pianist. Both musicians wrote autobiographies of their time in the camp. Fenelon’s were the basis of a play by Arthur Miller, “Playing for Time”. This was made into a film of the same name, a work that was controversial on a few points. Firstly, Fenelon portrayed Rose as a cold-hearted person only interested in herself. Secondly the choice of Vanessa Redgrave to play Fenelon in the film caused controversy in its own right due to Redgrave’s political views. The film was initially banned in Israel.
Alma Rose managed to keep this band of inmates alive throughout her time in Auschwitz, making sure they were looked after and reasonably healthy. It meant that to some extent she had to work with the guards but it was this that kept the orchestra alive. In April 1944 Alma Rose died, probably due to food poisoning or maybe typhus which was very common in the camp. It is unlikely that she was poisoned as Fenelon suggests in her book, the camp authorities wanted to find out the cause as much as anyone.
After Rose died the orchestra continued under the supervision of a Russian prisoner, Sonia Vinogradovna. In January of 1945 the camp was dismantled and the inmates transferred to Bergen-Belson. All but two of the remaining members survived life in the new camp until its liberation by British troops.