The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 13, 2019 1:00 am

The stirring sounds of survival

Amid the horrors of Auschwitz, a classical musician came to embody the ideals of heroism

Jaki Schreier

In researching the Violins of Hope project that 27 organizations (the largest coalition of groups the city has ever brought together) are sponsoring this November, I've come across many amazing stories of true heroism.

Like many of us in these times of superficial and loosely awarded prestige, I struggle with the overuse of the word “hero.” A true hero is a person who tirelessly strives to put another human being's needs and safety above their own. A stirring testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of music, Violins of Hope comprises a collection of instruments that tell remarkable stories of the defiance, resilience and legacy of Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.

One hero is violinist Alma Rose'.

Alma came from an ethnically Jewish family and was the niece of the famous composer Gustav Mahler. Her father, Arnold Rose', was the longtime concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and was the founder of the world-famous Rose' String Quartet.

From her birth in 1906, Alma was groomed for stardom by her father, who had pulled himself up by his fiddle strings from Romanian poverty to Viennese glory. In 1926, she made her debut as a violinist in Bach's Double Concerto, accompanied by her father. She won notoriety as founder of “The Waltzing Girls of Vienna,” a female classical pops orchestra which she led as conductor-soloist in concert tours throughout Europe. During the Depression years, Alma succeeded in providing badly needed employment for women.

The group was forced to disband when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Alma was rounded up by the Nazis only 90 minutes before she would have reached freedom in Switzerland.

Her final journey began in an inhumanely packed cattle car of a German “Judentransport” (Jewish transport) in 1943.

She spent the next nine months as a prisoner in the shadows of four crematoriums of the slave labor extermination camp called Auschwitz. Alma immediately employed her most powerful tools – her strong will and her music. Her weapon of choice was the violin.

Alma assembled a ragtag collection of terrified musicians into a women's camp orchestra. Their survival literally depended on how well they played. She convinced her persecutors that the ensemble was essential to the camp and under her leadership it expanded to 45 members.

She put superhuman effort into her task. One survivor described Alma as “turning the orchestra upside down on its head. ... We played from morning to night.” During her tenure as conductor, none of her musicians were gassed –a miraculous feat under the most hellish of environments.

In a 1996 interview, cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a member of the women's camp orchestra, said she did not believe that Alma was motivated by fear of the Nazis.

It was rather an escape somehow – into excellence. Her insistence on perfection reminded her musicians that beyond the crematorium death smoke might still be the hope – of life, of love and of beauty. Alma pushed herself and the orchestra, full of faith that, if they played well enough, they would be allowed to live.

Alma's death in the camp, it is believed, was the result of disease that was all too rampant. The women's orchestra continued to play. All but two of Alma's musicians lived to see the end of the war.

The violinist, Alma Rose', is an example of a true hero.

I thank the City of Fort Wayne and its citizens for their support of the Violins of Hope project and in bringing these inspirational Strings of the Holocaust back to life.

Jaki Schreier is executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne.

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