From Crossover Star to Survivalist – the unexpected transformation of Alma Rosé

Alma as vamp

Alma Rosé, Vienna, 1906 – 1944, Auschwitz (photo courtesy of the Gustav Mahler – Alfred Rosé Collection held at the Library of Western Ontario, Canada)

The Shoah is by and large an area I try to avoid on this blog. For the purposes of the “Forbidden Music” blog, what was lost is more important than the manner of its destruction. There is an entire academic industry surrounding the horrors of what has come to be known as “The Holocaust”. However, with a fascinating exhibition opening at Vienna’s Jewish Museum in May 2018 on the subject of “Marriages of Convenience”, I was asked to write a chapter in the accompanying catalogue on Alma Rosé. Since Catalogues are restricted by word count, can’t accommodate media and will need to emphasise the theme of the exhibition, I decided it was (with their permission) possible to upload the article in a uniquely blog version.


Frauenorchester Auschwitz – the Women’s Orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau

The myths and counter-myths surrounding Alma Rosé have allowed posterity to project any number of images onto a woman few can claim to have truly known. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s defiant defence of Rosé in response to her portrayal in Fania Fénelon’s memoirs gives us a woman of remarkable strength and musical integrity. It’s a portrait of a woman that is largely supported in Gabriele Knapp’s book Das Frauenorchester in Auschwitz, in which she interviews a wide number of players. Lasker-Wallfisch’s representation, along with Knapp’s interviewees, offer only the Rosé of the camps with rare glimpses of the Rosé from before. They present us with an Alma Rosé whose deep sense of musical legitimacy saved the women in the orchestra in Auschwitz.  Fénelon’s Alma Rosé, however, best known through Arthur Miller’s play, Playing for Time, comes across as opportunistic, Germanic and even compliant with her Nazi masters. It should be noted that most of the interviewees in Knapp’s research dismiss Fénelon’s book as a work of fiction, whereas Lasker-Wallfisch, who also dismisses her description of Alma Rosé, at least acknowledges a degree of admiration for Fénelon’s talent.


Fania Fénelon and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

The curse and salvation of Alma Rosé was that she was an Austrian violinist from a family of musical aristocrats: her father Arnold Rosé (originally Rosenblum, but changed to Rosé in 1882) was the concert master of the Court Opera Orchestra and member of the Vienna Philharmonic. He was also leader of the Rosé Quartet, arguably the most famous quartet of the day. Her mother was Justine Mahler, the younger sister of Gustav. Her Aunt, after whom she was named, was Gustav’s wife Alma née Schindler, while her uncle Eduard Rosé, previously cellist in Arnold’s quartet, was married to Emma, another sister of Gustav Mahler.


Brother Alfred with Alma and Justine Rosé (née Mahler)

The real Alma Rosé was nevertheless flawed, and flawed deeply, which makes her heroism all the more inspiring as it sprung from a depth that potentially dwells within everyone. Yet as pronounced as her flaws may have been, they may also have been the source of her courage. Thoughtless incaution would lead to recklessness, resulting in capture and eventual deportation; but the same incaution provided the determination that would secure the survival of her death-camp orchestra.  Confronted with the murderers of Auschwitz, her hereditary sense of music’s innate seriousness and its ability to impart abstract ideas and enlighten a darkened world would come to the fore. To those who knew her from earlier days, it would seem an unexpected metamorphosis.

Alma Rose_ Western Jewish Studies

Alma Rosé was not a Jew in the confessional sense. She had probably never set foot in a synagogue. Her parents were converts, as was her uncle Gustav. To a new breed of Austrian anti-Semites, conversion was never enough and with wilder extrapolations of Darwin and mounting interest in Eugenics, science seemed to confirm the basis of anti-Semitism provided by the Church and aided by an aristocracy, always in need of scapegoats when autocratic decisions went wrong. This “zoological” differentiation of who was a Jew, (to quote the diarist Viktor Klemperer), stood in contrast to what seemed an almost benign bigotry expressed by Vienna’s notoriously anti-Semitic Mayor Dr. Karl Lueger.  “Handsome Karl” or “der fesche Karl” as he was popularly known, never married, lived with his mother and attended daily mass. His anti-Semitism was religious and if a Jew converted, as far as Lueger was concerned, they were no longer a Jew. Emperor Franz Joseph found Lueger’s anti-Semitism repellent and a threat to the concept of his multi-ethnic realm. He refused to confirm him as Vienna’s mayor until 1897, coincidentally the same year that the freshly converted Gustav Mahler took over the city’s Court Opera. It was also thirty years since the 1867 December Constitution, which guaranteed equality regardless of religious adherence.

Lueger Cutting down the Jewish tree

Karl Lueger portrayed in the anti-Semitic satirical paper “Kikeriki” cutting down the tree of Judaism: May 23. 1895

If the first thirty years of “emancipation” enshrined the rights of Jews to practice their religion, the onset of Lueger’s mayoralty would see the beginning of a new process: conversions and departures from the Jewish Communities of the Empire. Reasons for conversion could not always be traced to opportunistic responses to endemic anti-Semitism, but revolved perhaps more frequently around complex questions of identity, and less frequently, as in the case of Egon and Emmy Wellesz, around actual religious conviction.  Indeed, with the onset of the twentieth century, constitutional emancipation meant freedom from religion altogether for a younger generation of artists, musicians and intellectuals, many of whom underwent a process of deliberate secularisation.


Austria’s multi-ethnic aristocracy

But if Catholicism was seen as fundamental to Austrian identity, so culture was seen as fundamental to German identity. Austria was not thought of as a German country, much to the distress of German speaking Austrians. The mother tongue of most pre-1918 Austrians was one of a selection of Slavic languages. Austrian aristocracy was also largely non-German, while the language of administration and government was German, as was the language of the Habsburgs and Vienna. The German speaking regions that make up today’s Austria were known as “German-Austria” the citizens of which, sensed a profound identification with German culture that had little to do with the borders of the German Reich founded only in 1871 and consolidated under Prussian kings. “German” and “Germany” were by no means synonymous and this disparity was acutely felt by German-Austrians. The lure of German culture was a stronger pull to many newly enfranchised Jews than religious conversion. What differentiated music within this cultural landscape, was a tradition of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner which saw music as a conduit of enlightenment and as pure as any science or philosophy. To the cultural patriot, only German music offered the spiritual enhancement of great art. The music of France and Italy could be dismissed as mere entertainment and diversion. A departure from Judaism may have facilitated one’s individual identification as an Austrian, but an embrace of the life-giving power of music was to identify as culturally German, whether a convert to Christianity or not.

Alma as little girl

Features in the society press on Alma Rosé as a child (photos courtesy of the Gustav Mahler – Alfred Rosé Collection held at the Library of Western Ontario, Canada)

Alma was not born to ethical greatness. She was the more talented of the two Rosé children and though early photos show her as a little girl with a violin, her debut was not that of a prodigy, but as a twenty year-old together with her father on December 16th, 1926 at Vienna’s Musikverein. Even upon this occasion, it was not the debut of a super-virtuoso in the manner of her contemporary Erika Morini (1904-1995), though both Rosé and Morini shared Otakar Švečík as their violin professor at Vienna’s Music Academy. Alma Rosé’s debut was as second violin with her father in Bach’s Double Concerto, recorded two years later. She was a talent, but in the wider context of Vienna, hardly exceptional. Her great advantages were her name and her beauty.


Glamour magazine shots of Alma (photos courtesy of the Gustav Mahler – Alfred Rosé Collection held at the Library of Western Ontario, Canada)

Photos from popular magazines aimed at primarily a female readership, show a young socialite with exceptionally attractive looks wearing smart clothes and driving flashy cars. She toured with the glamorous Czech virtuoso Váša Přihoda, whom she married in 1930, with Franz Werfel , now married to Aunt Alma Mahler, standing in as Best Man. Přihoda was considered the equal of Jascha Heifetz and enjoyed the support of the world’s great conductors. He purchased an estate near Prague in Zaryby where both he and Alma could prepare for concert work, both as individual soloists and as a couple.

Alma and Prihoda

Alma Rosé with husband Váša Přihoda, 1930 (photo courtesy of the Gustav Mahler – Alfred Rosé Collection held at the Library of Western Ontario, Canada)

Importantly for Alma, marriage with Přihoda accorded her with Czech citizenship and a Czech passport. It was a time when the newly established republic of Czechoslovakia was itself searching for some degree of national identity. A census taken in the same year as their marriage was meant to establish the balance of nationalities now living within its borders. Paradoxically, Austria was prior to 1918 not a German speaking country, just as paradoxically, Czechoslovakia was post 1918 not an exclusively Czech speaking one. Its enormous German speaking minority would be deported in 1945 on the basis of their answers to the census of 1930. Czech identity and nationality would save her in the short term and indirectly facilitate the rescue of her father from Nazi Austria in 1938.

alma's Waltz Girls

Wiener Walzermädeln

In 1932, Alma Rosé recognised that she would never be able to enter into direct competition with her husband and decided to strike out on her own. The decision was daring as it represented a departure from serious music and the creation of an exclusively female orchestra. Her salon orchestra was called Wiener Walzermädeln, which might be translated as The Waltz Girls of Vienna. In many ways, Alma was herself a typical Viennese girl, such as described by the playwright Arthur Schnitzler with his representation of the “süßes wiener Mädel” (“sweet Viennese girl”), as a sentimental working class girl with a heart of gold. Even if Alma was hardly working class, the innocence and intrinsic sweetness of Viennese womanhood was a stereotype that was projected by herself and her orchestra. According to conversations the music journalist Norman Lebrecht held with Alma Rosé’s cousin Eleonora Rosé in London and published on 5. April 2000 in The Telegraph, Přihoda needed a full-time wife and cared little for Alma’s low-brow musical activities. Much to her distress, he divorced her in 1935.

Alma Rosé

Low-brow or not, the Walzermädln were successful and began touring throughout the countries that had previously been part of the Habsburg realm. The “girls” were all professional and played by memory with Alma as conductor, and following in the tradition of Johann Strauss, as violin soloist. Their last concert was at Vienna’s Ronacher Theater on New Year’s Eve 1937. Only a few months hence, with the Nazi “Anschluss” (annexation) of Austria in March 1938, her father would be removed from positions at both the Opera Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. All of the Rosé family members were barred from future performances in what was no longer Austria, but now the Ostmark province of Nazi Germany.

émigré London

Émigré London

Alma’s brother Alfred quickly made plans to emigrate and soon managed to leave for the United States. He later procured affidavits for Alma and Arnold that proved useless with the outbreak of war and the closing of all American Embassies in German occupied Europe. The noted violinist Carl Flesch had himself managed to immigrate and with connections including the conductor Adrian Boult, secured visas for Arnold and Alma to come to London. With a Czech passport, Alma could travel ahead to organise logistics. Justine, Arnold’s wife and Alma’s mother had died only six months after Austria’s annexation. Arnold, Alma and her newest lover, a young Austrian named Heini Salzer arrived at a small flat in London’s Maida Vale.

Arnold und Alma

Alma and Arnold Rosé, 1927

Crucially, Arnold had managed to keep his priceless 1718 “Mysa” Stradivari gifted to him by the Countess Esterházy.  Though 76 years old at the time of his arrival in England, he could still perform and indeed, both he and Alma would make appearances at various émigré venues such as “The Austrian Centre” and the émigré “Kulturbund”. At some point, Heini Salzer left London and returned to Vienna, later writing Alma to inform her of his upcoming marriage. As immigrants were otherwise not allowed to work, and the income from refugee cultural events was minimal, Bruno Walter suggested Arnold sell his “Mysa”, which would keep everyone financially secure for the foreseeable future. Alma, herself the proud owner of a Guadagnini violin from 1757 knew how impossible this suggestion was and now abandoned by Heini, decided to travel to Holland where she could make a living performing her Waltz Girl numbers. She left on November 26, 1939 with a contract at the Grand Hôtel “Central”, Le Haye, never to return.

grand-hotel-alama-11-18-_must be 1939

first page of a letter from Alma to Alfred (Courtesy of the University of Western Ontario)

Letters from Alma to her brother suggest that she managed to earn enough to keep her father from penury and above all, allow him to keep his Mysa violin. Alma’s flaws, however, would be her undoing. She was confident in her talent, her reputation, her charisma and her beauty while at the same time, skittish and disorganised. In May 1940, she failed to get an extension on her British visa, barring her from re-entry only a week before Nazi troops occupied the Netherlands. According to the 1935 Nuremberg laws, Alma was “fully Jewish” and had to accept the addition of the name “Sara” in her passport, along with a clearly stamped “J”, though her friends recalled that she defiantly refused to wear the yellow “Jew-star”. The circle of Gustav Mahler’s friends along with his devoted admirer Willem Mengelberg, would use what influence they had to keep her safe for the next two years.

Concertgebouw Amsterdam, v.l.n.r. Cornelis Dopper, Gustav Mahler, H. Freijer, Willem Mengelberg

From left to right: Cornelis Dopper, Gustav Mahler, H. Freijer, Willem Mengelberg

By 1942, however, even Mengelberg was unable to keep her from possible deportation and it became clear that her only hope would be to marry a non-Jew. Alma had set her hopes on marrying someone she could at least appreciate as a friend and was disappointed when it emerged that the lawyer, Theo Bakker, was already engaged and felt a marriage to Alma would endanger his practice as accredited defence attorney under the newly established regime. Alma’s circle of close friends met and came up with the suggestion of the thirty-four year-old Constant August van Leeuwen Boomkamp, brother of the well-known cellist Jan Carel. Constant August was a part-time medical student with little interest in girls, dependent on his mother’s finances and otherwise, directionless in life.  It was understood the couple would never need to live together. The Nazi occupiers had, nonetheless become increasingly aware of the sudden influx of questionable marriages between Jews and non-Jews and moved to make so-called “mixed-marriages” illegal. It was important for the couple to marry as soon as possible with Alma noting the “engagment” in her diary as February 8. 1942.

Carel van Leeuwen von Boomkamp

Jan Carel van Leeuwen Boomkamp, 1906-2000

Initially, Constant August agreed to the proposal, but wavered to the point that it remained questionable whether he would appear at the registrar’s office on the appointed day, March 4. 1942. Using her new name, Alma immediately applied for permission to embark on a foreign concert tour. Jan Carel, unaware of the marriage, assumed she was trying to profit from the family name, distanced himself, and unwittingly led to the rejection of her application. By September 1942, Jewish partners of childless mixed-marriages were being deported or subjected to mandatory sterilisation.  Her marriage barely managed to save her following arrest during a summary Nazi round-up, though the fact she did not live with her husband and their childlessness cast doubts on the legitimacy of their union. The fright of further difficulties emerging from the transparency of an obvious sham marriage, led her to attempt the perilous journey to Switzerland via occupied Belgium and France.

Escape routes in Europe

The situation was described by Marije Staerkes after the war in a letter she wrote to Alma’s brother Alfred:

From the letters she wrote to you herself, you will already be aware of all the things she experience during the one-and a-half years she stayed with us – including her marriage to a cousin of my husband in order to be protected as the spouse within a mixed-[race]-marriage. This kept her calm for a while but in August of the same year [1942] she was arrested in our home by German police, at a point when all Catholic Jews were being rounded up. We, meaning my husband and I, had left for Den Haag for a few days where mercifully, she was able to reach us on the same day. We, along with her husband, Mr. C. van Leeuwen-Boomkamp from Utrecht did everything we could and thank heavens, managed to have her released the following day. Nevertheless, from that moment on, she became increasingly fearful that she would not be safe in the long-term, especially given the fact that her marriage had taken place only a few days before the Germans passed a law imposing heavy penalties on future mix-marriages. In addition, it was clear that this was no true marriage as her husband had an entirely different address. She had a dreadful fear of having to go underground and felt she didn’t possess the necessary temperament to live with strange people who might be quite incompatible, or indeed, be left alone in a single room. With this, she decided to attempt a return to England.


Drancy Detention Camp 1942

She left her priceless violin behind with a note that it “not be lost” along with a photo of herself, should there be any doubt as to ownership. She only managed to get as far as Dijon before being denounced and spending the next six months in Drancy detention camp. On June 18, 1943, she, along with a thousand others, travelled by cattle car on a three-day train journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She survived the first selection and while registered under the name of van Leeuwen Boomkamp, was sent to Mengele’s medical experimentation unit. (Though Lasker-Wallfisch notes that she was sent to Block 10 to the gynaecologist Dr. Carl Clauberg who was experimenting with female sterilisation) This would ordinarily have meant a cruel and torturous death had she not been recognised as the violinist wife of Váša Přihoda. Assigned to transform an ad hoc women’s all-weather band into an orchestra, Alma lost her last vestiges of “girly Viennese innocence”. She quickly recognised that only by obtaining a degree of professionalism could any of them survive. What experiences she might have gleaned from conducting her Walzermädln has never been analysed, though it may have come in as useful. Certainly, the experience of running an orchestra with herself as leader and soloist would have raised standards beyond that of the orchestra under its previous conductor, the Polish inmate and music teacher, Zofia Czajkowska.


Maria Mandel: 1912-1948 SS head of women’s blocks at Auschwitz, responsible for the deaths of some 500,000 women and children. Founder of the Women’s Orchestra, executed on 24. January 1948, aged 36

At this point, we encounter the conflicting Alma Rosés of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and Fania Fénelon. To Lasker-Wallfisch, herself a serious musician and former pupil of the Viennese cellist Leo Rostal, whom Alma would have known, she was a saviour who resorted to ultimate artistic integrity and discipline as a means of survival. To Fénelon, Alma was just another “German” and her demands were barely any different from the barking of camp commandants. Fénelon was also conservatory trained and there is little in Arthur Miller’s adaptation of her memoirs to suggest that she was not at least grudgingly appreciative of Alma’s survival options. On the other hand, it can be assumed that cultural and linguistic identity issues in the multi-national hell-hole of Auschwitz would have strongly coloured her accounts. As portrayed in Miller’s Playing for Time, Fénelon sang the Marseillaise to a BBC journalist upon release from Bergen-Belsen, to mark her liberation from German tyranny; and for her, Alma Rosé was just another bossy German.

Alma Rosé and Anne Frank as teens

Alma Rosé and Anne Frank at similar ages

Alma Rosé’s death at the age of 36 remains a mystery. Most assume it was a straightforward case of botulism from tainted food following a private party given by Auschwitz officials on August 2. 1944. She died two days later among persistent rumours that she had been poisoned. Her death, like that of Anne Frank, left us with myths and ideas that far exceed their actual personalities. Who can say what would have become of Anne Frank had she lived. To the rag-bag orchestra in Auschwitz, Alma Rosé was a virtuoso. In reality, she was probably a reasonably accomplished soloist, such as any orchestra might have as concert-master, albeit with an impeccable musical pedigree. Yet both achieved more in death by reminding us of the potential heroism that resides in, and can be called upon, by even the most unremarkable human beings.