The Violinist of Auschwitz
Alma Rosé, an Austrian violinist of Jewish descent, was a virtuoso violinist, playing throughout Europe with famous orchestras and symphonies. The famous composer Gustav Mahler was her uncle. Her home orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, where her father was concertmaster for 50 years until he was expelled by Nazis for being of Jewish heritage. Alma created and led the Waltzing Girls of Vienna, a women’s orchestra of fabulous repute, playing to huge crowds throughout Europe.
When Nazis occupied Austria, Alma and her father moved to England. But Alma returned shortly to Holland, where she thought she could remain safely hidden. In 1942, she was captured by Nazis, sent to Drancy, France, and shipped in a cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she became prisoner # 50381. There, Alma became ill and was sent to the experimental block, where the notorious Dr. Clauberg was experimenting on bloodless sterilization. Only when a fellow-prisoner named Hellinger gave her a violin did the SS realize who she was. This saved her from what likely would have been a swift death from medical experimentation or to a gas chamber with other prisoners for regular extermination.
The commandant of the Auschwitz women’s camp, Maria Mandel, had created a women’s orchestra. It was led by Zofia Czajkowska, a Polish teacher. When it was discovered that the famous Alma Rosé was incarcerated in Auschwitz, Mandel put Alma in charge of the orchestra as a Kapo, and gave them a “music block” (building) in Birkenau. There, they were exempt from slave labor and gassing, given a little more food, and they lived in better conditions than the horrific circumstances the rest of the death camp’s inmates experienced.
As Alma got to know her orchestra girls, she decided to make it her life’s work to protect them from being brutalized or murdered, which was the fate of almost every other prisoner. As word traveled throughout Auschwitz about the famous Alma Rosé, several members of the Nazi SS leadership took a serious interest in her, including the infamous “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, and Obersturmfuhrer Franz Hössler.
Alma’s girls also played at the gates of Auschwitz, as prisoners went to and from outside work locations; at SS events, and they witnessed the ramps where incoming trains dislodged their cattle cars filled with frightened, starved mostly Jewish families from the entirety of Europe. The orchestra members also played for the long queues of prisoners waiting for their turn in gas chambers and in the despicable, forlorn Revier, where ill prisoners were sent to die. The reader thus bears witness to the horrifying conditions and genocide that existed daily at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as how incoming prisoners were deceived by the SS into walking into gas chambers.
Alma Rosé became an incredibly fearless and courageous woman at Auschwitz, especially in how she treated high-level SS staff, who admired her talent and fame as a violinist and conductor immensely. She bullied Nazi leaders into giving her girls amenities that existed nowhere else in Auschwitz-Birkenau. From better quality and quantity of food, to their own uniforms, to their own building, stove and showers, Alma kept her girls alive and thriving. Most importantly, Alma kept them from being shot or gassed and their bodies cremated. In addition to Women’s Camp Commandant Maria Mandel, Alma confronted infamous wardens Margo Drexler and Irma Grese.
In late 1943, Alma promised to have her Auschwitz prisoner orchestra play like a famous philharmonic orchestra for the SS Christmas party. Deprived of many members due to a typhus epidemic, Alma intimidated SS leaders to bring in members of the men’s orchestra as tutors. This included a very famous Hungarian pianist named Miklós Steinberg. Steinberg lived in a section of Birkenau called, “The Family Camp.” Like Alma, he carried a pass that allowed him access to large areas of the camp. He tutored Alma’s orchestra members. Soon, Rosé and Steinberg were madly in love. In large part because of Steinberg’s tutoring, and the return of typhus victims from the infirmary, the concert was a resounding success. Alma fulfilled her promise.
In early 1944, Miklós gave Alma a wonderful gift. He composed a new piano sonata just for her. It was meant to be his legacy for Alma and to the entire world. Shortly after that, the SS decided to liquidate the entire Family Camp, including men, women, and children. What would be the fates of Steinberg and Rosé?
Even in a place so near to a living hell as Auschwitz, prisoners fell in love, developed comradery, and created lasting memories. It is the human condition to love, to attract others, and to be engrossed with fellow prisoners. This wonderous feature of the human experience gives meaning to everyone, regardless of their condition, background, history, nationality, religion, or past experiences. Despite the daily terror of Nazi death camps, love existed and humans felt the same powerful attraction with each other that existed during normal times.
This wonderfully written heartbreaking story was carefully produced by a very talented author, Ellie Midwood. Her writing is haunting and expressive; and her treatment of the love affair between Alma and Miklós is told with careful deliberation. Her sources are impeccable and her character development superb.
Author Midwood brings Alma’s story to life adroitly. She takes the reader on a realistic tour of Auschwitz. This is no whitewash of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Instead, it is the story of a famous violinist who becomes a courageous fighter for the members of her orchestra. In ways that defy belief, Alma manages to bully the SS into giving her girls a chance to survive and protection from being murdered.