Alma Rose was a Jewish concert violinist who created a women’s orchestra in Auschwitz, saving many female musicians from the gas chambers.
Born in Austria in 1906, Alma had an illustrious musical lineage. Her father, Arnold Rose, was a famous conductor who led the Vienna Philharmonic, and her maternal uncle was the great composer Gustav Mahler.
Alma went into the family business, becoming a virtuoso violinist. She founded a women’s orchestra called the Viennese Waltzing Girls, and toured Europe with them throughout the 1930’s.
Like many assimilated European Jews of the time, Alma’s family internalized the virulent anti-Semitism all around them. Alma’s father changed his name from Rosenblum to Rose to sound less Jewish. Alma herself converted to Catholicism and married a non-Jewish Czech violinist. She even got a nose job, which was very rare at the time.
Feeling confident she’d left her Jewish identity behind, Alma continued to tour Europe with her band in the early 1940’s. However, to the Nazis it was irrelevant that she was a practicing Christian with a small nose. They discovered her Jewish heritage, and arrested her in France in 1943.
Alma was sent to Auschwitz. As she was being tattooed with her prisoner number, a fellow inmate recognized her, and mentioned to an SS guard that Alma was the most famous female violinist in Europe. The Nazis enjoyed having Jewish musicians perform for them, especially under physically tortuous conditions. They assigned Alma to a group of amateur female musicians, gave her a violin that was confiscated from another inmate, and told her to create an orchestra.
Alma knew that the better their music sounded, the longer her musicians would be allowed to live. She created a grueling rehearsal schedule of eight hours a day, and incredibly, turned the ragtag band into a professional-sounding symphony orchestra. The Nazi liked their Jewish musicians to suffer while they played - typically they played outside in the rain and snow, barely clothed. Alma’s orchestra was in such demand among Nazi officers that they were given uniforms and allowed to perform indoors.
Some of the performers in the orchestra did not have much musical ability, but Alma refused to fire anybody. Instead she assigned other roles to the weaker musicians, such as being an assistant or score copier.
Sadly, Alma Rose died in Auschwitz of illness on April 4, 1944. She was 36 years old.
For making beautiful music in a hideous place, and protecting the musicians in her remarkable orchestra, we honor Alma Rose as this week’s Thursday Hero.