Fri, Mar 27, 2009 - Page 7 News List

US group honors orchestra from Nazi concentration camp

LIFE AND DEATH The fact that they played in an orchestra saved more than 50 women from the fate that befell more than a million people at Birkenau


When Gustav Mahler’s niece greeted new arrivals at a Nazi death camp, she knew that any woman who stepped off the train with a musical instrument had a chance to live.

Women in Alma Rose’s orchestra were forced to entertain SS officers at the Birkenau concentration camp.

All the women survived — except Rose.

Now, a US ensemble of singers and musicians is paying tribute to those musicians with concerts in the US and Germany.

During the 18 months the Birkenau orchestra existed, its musicians played pieces the German officers loved — Beethoven symphonies, Puccini arias, Chopin and Strauss waltzes. The women also had to play marches for emaciated, often sick prisoners as they struggled to walk to their forced labor jobs.

All around was death — people perishing outdoors, or in filthy barracks and gas chambers. More than 1 million disappeared in this place of horror.

When the Vienna-born Rose was sent to the camp, the SS guards realized she was Mahler’s relative and had conducted an all-women’s orchestra. She was asked to form one at Birkenau.

“As the women came off transport trains, if they had a guitar, a violin, a recorder or a mandolin, they were put aside,” said Alice Radosh, who helped organize the Ars Choralis concerts. “People would hear classical music — and think, ‘How bad could this be?’”

The truth was, “we played with tears in our eyes and guns at our backs,” Radosh quoted accordion player Esther Bejarano as saying after the war.

“At Birkenau, music was indeed the best and worst of things,” wrote the late Fania Fenelon, a cabaret singer from Paris who wrote the book Playing for Time, which was turned into a television movie.

“The best because it filled in time and brought us oblivion, like a drug; we emerged from it deadened, exhausted,” Fenelon said, “and the worst because our public consisted of the assassins and the victims, and in the hand of the assassins, it was almost as though we too were made executioners.”

With the orchestra, Rose saved more than 50 women, but what killed the great composer’s niece remains a mystery.

A document signed by Josef Mengele on April 4, 1944, shows that the physician who performed experiments on prisoners was summoned to a special private room where Rose lay, slipping in and out of consciousness from an undiagnosed illness. Mengele signed a form requesting medical tests for meningitis and pneumonia that came out negative.

Rose died the next day and was respectfully laid out atop a white cloth, with floral tributes sent by SS officers, according to Fenelon’s book.

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