The Birkenau Women's Camp Orchestra

In some Nazi camps, Jewish musicians were permitted or required to play in camp orchestras.  For these musicians, playing in an orchestra not only sustained their spirits but also provided opportunities for resistance and even survival. But the benefits of playing in a camp orchestra also left some with feelings of regret and guilt during and after the Holocaust. Author James A. Grymes describes the experiences of some who played in the Birkenau Women’s Camp Orchestra:

The orchestra in the Birkenau Men’s Camp had a counterpart in the Women’s Camp. Like the ensembles elsewhere in Auschwitz, the Birkenau Women’s Camp Orchestra provided marching music for the work details as they marched out of camp every morning and back in every evening. The musicians also played at camp inspections, at the arrivals of transports, at the infirmary, and during Sunday concerts. 

The women’s orchestra was founded in April 1943 by Maria Mandel, who was the commandant of the women’s camp. In its first month of existence, only female Aryans were allowed to participate. Jews were soon added to complete the ensemble. The orchestra started with just a bass drum and cymbals, but gradually grew to include mandolins, guitars, a few violins, a cello, a piano, and a few singers. 

The absence of winds, specifically brass instruments, gave the women’s orchestra a more intimate sound than the orchestra in the Birkenau Men’s Camp. Despite the rivalry that emerged between the two ensembles and their Nazi patrons, the members of the orchestras regularly interacted with each other. Heinz Lewin, a Jewish violinmaker from Germany who was equally proficient on clarinet, saxophone, and double bass, would go into the women’s camp twice a week to give bass lessons. The orchestras eventually adopted a practice of performing in each other’s camp on alternating Sundays. 
No examination of the Birkenau Women’s Orchestra would be complete without discussing its most famous member, Alma Rosé. Rosé came from one of the most distinguished families in Austro-German music. Her father was Arnold Rosé, the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the leader of the famed Rose String Quartet. Her uncle was the composer Gustav Mahler. Alma was herself a virtuoso violinist of great renown, for her solo playing as well as for her leadership of the Viennese Waltz Girls, a popular all-female ensemble that she had founded. 

Rosé fled to London with her father after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, but naively left for Holland to resume her career as a performer. After Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, she found herself trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. On December 14, 1942, after being ordered to report to the Westerbork Transit Camp, Rosé tried to escape to Switzerland by slipping through Belgium and France. She was arrested in Dijon four days later and was sent to the Drancy Internment Camp, where she was imprisoned for several months before being deported to Auschwitz in July 1943. 

After reaching Birkenau [part of Auschwitz], Rosé was appointed conductor of the Women’s Camp Orchestra. Because of her stature within the classical music world, she was held in high esteem by the SS guards, who reverentially called her “Frau Alma.” Rosé was able to exploit her exalted status by recruiting Jewish musicians into the orchestra and by making sure that all of her musicians enjoyed special privileges such as permission to shower daily and new uniforms weekly. They also received more food and better accommodations, as well as lenient work assignments. As did Szymon Laks in the men’s camp, Rosé was able to convince the administration of the women’s camp to exempt the orchestral musicians from performing outside during inclement weather. 

Rosé was even able to convince the Nazis to spare her musicians from selections [for the gas chambers]. When mandolin player Rachela Zelmanowicz was in the infirmary with typhus—a death sentence for any other prisoner—Josef Mengele was prepared to send her to the gas chambers. 

“What’s with this one?” he asked during his rounds.

“She’s from the orchestra.”

Mengele continued on his way without any further discussion. As a member of Rosé’s orchestra, Zelmanowicz was untouchable even by him. Her life was spared.

Given the low percentage of female orchestral musicians in the early twentieth century, it is not surprising that there were fewer professional musicians in the women’s orchestra than in the men’s orchestras of Auschwitz. To compensate for the relatively low levels of ability, Rosé rehearsed her ensemble tirelessly to improve the quality of both their performances and their repertoire. In addition to performing at the camp for two or three hours a day, the orchestra rehearsed eight hours a day, six days a week. Rosé knew that the fate of the musicians rested in the reputation of the ensemble. 

Rosé died of mysterious causes on April 4, 1944. After ten months of dedicating herself to protecting all of the women in her orchestra, in the end she was unable to save herself. It is suspected that her death was caused by alcohol poisoning, but it is not clear whether the poisoning was accidental or intentional. 

After Rosé’s death, the orchestra’s repertoire and duties were scaled back and its members were put back to work. 

The orchestra was dissolved in November 1944, when the non-Jewish members of the orchestra were transferred to the former men’s camp. The Jewish performers were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.1

. . . For the musicians who played in the orchestras, music often provided a welcome escape from the thoughts that were otherwise filled with despair and death. “For all of us in the orchestra it was our music making that served as our most important life preserver and stimulant during this period,” documented a former member of the Auschwitz III orchestra. “We derived so much satisfaction and joy from performing in concert that we found ourselves forgetting for a moment that we were condemned souls living in a hell that the uninitiated could never even imagine.” 

Music offered the performers opportunities to live a little longer, if only for one more day. While participation in an orchestra did not guarantee survival, it did protect musicians from the harshest of labor assignments and sometimes offered warmer uniforms and slightly better food. In many cases, these advantages offered just enough benefits to allow musicians to outlive the Nazi regime. “Music has kept me alive,” Henry Meyer later confirmed. “There is no doubt about it.”

Some of the musicians who played in the Auschwitz orchestras continued to make music after the Holocaust. . . . But many of the musicians never played again. Survivor’s guilt, combined with a deep regret over having been forced to exploit their art to save their lives, rendered making music too painful.2

  1. Citations

    • 1 James A. Grymes, Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust—Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), 137–140. Reproduced by permission of HarperCollins.
    • 2 James A. Grymes, Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust—Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour (New York: Harper Perennial, 2014), 146–47. Reproduced by permission of HarperCollins.

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