Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz

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The Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz, or the Girls' Orchestra of Auschwitz, was a female orchestra at Auschwitz concentration camp, which was created in June 1943 by a Polish music teacher, Mrs. Zofia Czajkowska, by order of the SS. The members were young female prisoners, whose membership in the orchestra protected them from being gassed in the gas chamber, or from being worked to death. Czajkowska was eventually replaced as conductor by Alma Rosé, niece of Gustav Mahler. Rosé had been the conductor of a women's orchestra in her hometown of Vienna.

The orchestra played at the gate when the work gangs went out, and when they returned. During the final stages of the Holocaust, when the mass deportations of Jews from Eastern Europe occurred and large numbers of Jews were sent directly to the gas chambers[citation needed], the orchestra played in order to put the minds of the victims at ease[citation needed]. The music preserved the illusion that the Jews were being transported "to the East", and allowed the SS to kill more efficiently[citation needed]. Fania Fénelon denies, in her book, the claim that the orchestra had to play certain specific selections, and calls this a myth; however, she recorded concerts for the SS, and reported that Maria Mandel was particularly fond of her rendition of Madame Butterfly.

On 1 November 1944 the Jewish members of the women's orchestra were evacuated by cattle car to Bergen-Belsen where there was neither orchestra nor special privileges. On January 18, 1945, non-Jewish girls in the orchestra, including several Poles, were evacuated to Ravensbrück concentration camp.[1]


The history of the orchestra has been told in various forms. The best known documentation is Fania Fénelon's vivid novel-memoir, "Playing for Time" (an English translation of "Sursis pour l'orchestre"). Many of the surviving members of the orchestra took issue with Fénelon's portrayal of Alma Rosé, who appeared in Fénelon's memoir as a cruel disciplinarian and self-hating Jew who admired the Nazis and courted their favor. A recent biography of Rosé, "Alma Rosé: From Vienna to Auschwitz," by Rosé family friend Richard Newman and Karen Kirtley, strives to present a different picture of the orchestra leader. It corrects several errors in Fénelon's account (Rosé was Austrian, not German) and subtler biases: Fénelon, for instance, was never the leader of the orchestra. As a Parisian of socialist sympathies, divorced, active in the Resistance, and formerly a student of Germaine Martinelli, she was considerably more experienced and sophisticated than most of the teenaged girls in the orchestra, to whose immaturity she condescended; but there was never any doubt that Rosé was their leader. Nor, according to Newman and Kirtley, did Fénelon's and the other Jewish women's mistrust of the Christian Poles in the orchestra entirely reflect the truth: not all the Poles were anti-Semitic. But most significantly, Rosé emerges in her biography as a heroine who saved the lives of nearly all the women in her care by forcing them to work their hardest even if they were marginally talented, though her dramatic temperament and her egotism do not go unremarked.

Other potential sources of controversy were represented by Fénelon's novelistic rendering of her experience, with reconstructed conversations and thinly veiled name changes (Violette Jacquet became "Florette," Hélène Scheps and Hélène Rounder both became "Irene," Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was "Marta," and Fanny Birkenwald was "Anny"), and her frank treatment of both prostitution and lesbianism in the camps, with several alleged lesbian liaisons between orchestra members (toward which Fénelon was compassionate). Both the English and the German translations of her memoir were slightly abridged in respect to this last matter.

Rosé died in 1944 of unknown causes; poisoning was suspected by Fénelon and others, but according to Newman and Kirtley the cause was likely to be either botulism or typhus. After Rosé the orchestra was conducted haphazardly by Sonia Vinogradovna, a Russian prisoner, but in January 1945 Auschwitz was dismantled by the Nazis and the orchestra was sent to Bergen-Belsen. Two members, Lola Kroner and Julie Stroumsa, died there. The rest survived, though Ewa Stojowska was badly beaten and Fania Fénelon nearly died of typhus. Fénelon wrote that the orchestra was scheduled to be shot to death on the same day as the liberation by British troops. She was interviewed by the BBC on the day of liberation and performed "La Marseillaise" and "God Save the King."


  1. ^ Mary Deane Lagerwey Reading Auschwitz p28 1998

List of Films[edit]

  • Esther Bejarano and the girl orchestra of Auschwitz Christel Priemer 1992
  • Bach in Auschwitz Michel Daeron (2000)
  • Playing for Time, Linda Yellen 1980, TV-movie based on Arthur Miller's stage adaptation; the source of much controversy for its choice of Vanessa Redgrave, a PLO sympathizer, to play Fania Fénelon; Fénelon opposed the not-very-Jewish-looking Redgrave on the grounds that she was miscast as well as being anti-Israeli. Fénelon also was critical of the film's accuracy, citing an unrealistic degree of freedom among the prisoners. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch supported Redgrave. Alma Rosé was played by Jane Alexander in a widely praised performance. The film is notable for a positive portrayal of a romantic relationship between two prisoners (played by Lenore Harris and Mady Kaplan), well ahead of its time.

List of Members of the orchestra[edit]

As of 2009, Esther Bejarano, Violette Jacquet, Hilde Simha, Rivka Bacia (Regina Kuperberg), and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch are known to be among the last living survivors of the girl orchestra.

List of Relevant Books[edit]

  • Playing for Time. Translated from the French by Judith Landry. Atheneum New York 1977.
Authors: Fania Fénelon Marcelle Routier
ISBN 0-689-10796-X.
  • Sursis pour l'orchestre. Témoignage recueilli par Marcelle Routier. Co-édition Stock/Opera Mundi. Paris 1976
Authors: Fania Fénelon Marcelle Routier
ISBN 0-689-10796-X.
  • Wir leben trotzdem [We Live Nevertheless]. Esther Bejarano--vom Mädchenorchester in Auschwitz zur Künstlerin für den Frieden. Herausgegeben vom Auschwitz-Komitee in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland e.V. Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag Bonn 2007.
Authors: Esther Bejarano Birgit Gärtner
ISBN 3-89144-353-6
  • Man nannte mich Krümel. Eine jüdische Jugend in den Zeiten der Verfolgung. Herausgegeben vom Auschwitz-Komitee in der Bundesrepublik e.V. Curio-Verlag Hamburg 1989.
Author: Esther Bejarano
ISBN 3-926534-82-6
  • Alma Rosé. Vienna to Auschwitz. Amadeus Press Portland Oregon 2000.
Authors: Richard Newman Karen Kirtley
ISBN 1-57467-051-4
  • Inherit the Truth. A Memoir of Survival and the Holocaust. St. Martin's Press New York 2000.
Author: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
ISBN 0-312-20897-9
  • Das Frauenorchester in Auschwitz. Musikalische Zwangsarbeit und ihre Bewältigung. von Bockel Verlag Hamburg 1996.
Author: Gabriele Knapp
ISBN 3-928770-71-3
  • Asszonysors
Author: Lilla Máthé
  • Les sanglots longs des violons... Avoir dix-huit ans à Auschwitz. Publié par les éditions Oskarson (Oskar jeunesse) Paris 2007. Previously published with the title Les sanglots longs des violons de la mort.
Author: Violette Jacquet-Silberstein - Yves Pinguilly
ISBN 978-2-35000-162-3
  • Tu choisiras la vie
Author: Jacques Stroumsa (mentions Julie Stroumsa)
ISBN 2-204-05914-5
  • Violinist in Auschwitz. From Salonica to Jerusalem 1913-1967. Translated from German by James Stewart Brice. Edited by Erhard Roy Wiehn. Hartung-Gorre Verlag. Konstanz.
Author: Jacques Stroumsa (mentions Julie Stroumsa)
ISBN 3-89191-869-0
  • Het meisje met de accordion : de overleving van Flora Schrijver in Auschwitz-Birkenau en Bergen-Belsen. Uitgeverij Scheffers Utrecht 1994.
Author: Mirjam Verheijen
ISBN 90-5546-011-7
  • Crying is Forbidden Here! A Jewish Girl in pre-WWII Poland, The Women's Orchestra in Auschwitz and Liberation in Bergen-Belsen. Edited by Arie Olewski and Jochevet Ritz-Olewski. Based on her Hebrew testimony, recorded by Yad-Vashem in 21.5.1984. Printed at The Open University of Israel 2009.
Author: Rachela Olewski (Zelmanowicz)
ISBN 978-965-91217-2-4
  • Dans l'orchestre d'Auschwitz - Le secret de ma mère. Auzas Éditions Imago Paris 2010
Author: Jean-Jacques Felstein
ISBN 978-2-84952-094-9
  • Survivre et mourir en musique dans les camps nazis. Éditions Berg International 2011
Author: Bruno Giner
ISBN 978-2-917191-39-2

External links[edit]