Alma Rosé

* 3.11.1906 (Wien) 5.4.1944 (Auschwitz) Austria
Fields of activity: Violinist
Author: Ulrike Rahmatian

Unless Vienna Alma Rose Foto

Violinist, Founder and Conductor of ‘The Waltzing Girls of Vienna’

Director of the Girl Orchestra in Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp

 "If we do not play well, we will go to the gas chamber’ Alma 1943

They entertained the SS in order to stay alive. This was morally questioned, but she helped to save the lives of more than 40 women.

 Alma was born into an assimilated Jewish family (originally named Rosenblum) with high musical reputation. Her father Arnold was for many years Concert Master of the Vienna Philharmonics and founder of the famous Rosé Quartet, her mother Justine sister of composer Gustav Mahler. Already as a child she met all celebrities in Vienna’s musical circles.

In 1926 she had her debut as violinist together with her father in Bach’s Double Concerto and received huge media response. However, throughout her career the appraisal of her musical talents remained controversial. Some critics found them outstanding, others rather mediocre.

1930 she married the Czech violinist Vasa Prihoda, an international star. In the beginning the marriage was happy and they went on concert tours together. However, gradually the relationship deteriorated and in 1935 Vasa demanded to get divorced, a deep shock for Alma.

In 1932 she founded ‘The Vienna Waltzing Girls’, a unique orchestra, which soon gained international popularity. Alma was always very keen on perfect styling (preparing for her life in public she even had a nose operation in young years). She employed the best designers for the ladies’ robes and the performances were meticulously choreographed. But apart from show factor, also the musical qualities were outstanding. Even the composer Ernst Krenek acknowledged that the ‘The Waltzing Girls’ set amazingly high standards in light music.

Alma’s father was forced into retirement in 1938, at the outbreak of World War II they managed to escape to England. Oppressed by financial problems, the prospect to perform again made her return to the continent. For some time she managed to create a modest income, but then was trapped in the Netherlands after Hitler’s invasion. Dutch friends arranged a fake marriage, she was able to leave the country. On the way to Switzerland Alma was caught, imprisoned in Drancy and finally sent to Auschwitz Birkenau in 1943.

She was sent to infamous Block 10, the unit for medical experiments, and fell severely ill. Luckily, when she was identified as famous musician, SS Chief Supervisor Maria Mandel put her in charge of her favourite project, the Girl Orchestra. Their duties encompassed playing at the gate every morning and evening, when the prisoners left for and returned from their labour assignments, but also giving concerts on Sundays and playing at SS functions. It is under dispute, whether or not they also played during selections for the gas chambers. With few exceptions all members of the orchestra were amateurs, therefore Alma imposed a rigid regime, knowing that their lives depended on how well they played. They had to rehearse 8 hours per day, and soon the ensemble reached a remarkably high standard and extreme popularity. In return they were granted unheard of privileges - a separate block, exemption from labour duties, better food rations and even medical treatment. Fania Fenelon, a French vocalist, later on claimed that Alma was an authoritarian egomaniac, bowing to the SS to gain personal benefits. Other survivors protested this account and expressed gratitude. For sure she was an enigmatic and ambiguous person and disciplinary freak. Fact is, Alma kept less talented as copyists and assistants and all but 2 of the orchestra members survived the holocaust. Not Alma, she died at the age of 37, most probably of food poisoning after a birthday party. In a bizarre twist notorious Dr. Josef Mengele had tried to save her life. There was even a funeral ceremony.

Former member Silvia Wagenberg: When she died, I thought, now it’s over; either they will send us somewhere else—then we’re done for, or we’ll be gassed right away.  It is hardly measurable, what Alma meant for the orchestra.


Richard Newman ‘Wien1906/Auschwitz1944’ 

Photocredits: Alma Rose, photograph with violin, Foto Fayer

Source: Picture Archive ONB NB 516888-B, kind permission ONB (Austrian National Library) of 20.01. 2014