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 Spring 1943 by order of the SS. The members were usually young female prisoners, of varying nationalities, who were spared regular camp labor in lieu of performing music that was regarded as helpful in the daily running of the camp.


The Mädchenorchester von Auschwitz (lit. "Girls Orchestra of Auschwitz") was first formed in April 1943 [1] as a pet project of SS-Oberaufseherin ("SS chief supervisor") Maria Mandel, for the Germans who desired both a propaganda tool for visitors and camp newsreels, and as a tool for camp morale. It was led by a Polish music teacher, Zofia Czajkowska, and remained small until May 1943 when Jews were allowed to be admitted. The members came from many countries, including Greece, Poland, Germany, Ukraine and Belgium.[2]

Starting in June 1943, its primary role was to play (often for hours on end in all weather conditions) [3] at the gate when the work gangs went out, and when they returned.[2] The orchestra also gave weekend concerts for the prisoners and the SS and entertained at SS functions. They also played for sick and wounded prisoners in the infirmary, and were sometimes assigned to play when new transports arrived, or during selections.[citation needed]

In the early months, the ensemble consisted mainly of amateur musicians, with a string section, but also accordions and a mandolin, and lacked a bass section (having acquired their limited instruments and sheet music from the men's orchestra of the main Auschwitz camp).

The repertoire of the orchestra was fairly limited, in terms of the available sheet music, the knowledge of the conductor and the wishes of the SS. The orchestra played mostly German marching songs, as well as the Polish folk and military songs that Czajkowska knew by heart. The orchestra also included two professional musicians, cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and vocalist/pianist Fania Fénelon, each of whom wrote memoirs of their time in the orchestra. Wallfisch, for example, recollected being told to play Schumann's Träumerei for Josef Mengele, while Fénelon's account, Playing for Time, was made into a film of the same name.

Czajkowska was eventually replaced as conductor in August 1943 by Alma Rosé, niece of Gustav Mahler, who had been the conductor of a women's orchestra in her hometown of Vienna. Rosé was considerably more experienced and sophisticated than most of the teenage girls in the orchestra, but continued to rely on Czajkowska for Polish translation. Rosé conducted, orchestrated and sometimes played violin solos during its concerts. Apart from the official activity, she had the band rehearse and play forbidden music by Polish and Jewish composers to boost the spirits of band members and fellow inmates whom they trusted.[citation needed]

Rosé died suddenly but mysteriously, aged 37, in April 1944. Some sources state she died of food poisoning. Thereafter the orchestra was conducted haphazardly by Sonia Vinogradova, a Russian prisoner.[citation needed]

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 18 January 1945, non-Jewish girls in the orchestra, including several Poles, were evacuated to Ravensbrück concentration camp.[4] That same month, Auschwitz was dismantled and the orchestra was sent to Bergen-Belsen. Two members, Lola Kroner and Ioulia Stroumsa, died there, most likely from disease. The rest survived, although Ewa Stojowska was badly beaten and Fania Fénelon nearly died of typhus.[citation needed]

Fénelon wrote that on the same day as the liberation by British troops, the orchestra had been scheduled to be shot to death. She was interviewed by the BBC on the day of liberation and performed "La Marseillaise" and "God Save the King".[citation needed]

List of members[edit]



Surviving band members[edit]

Esther Bejarano, Hilde Simha, Regina Kupferberg, and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch are the only known band members still alive as of 2009.[citation needed]



  • Playing for Time, Linda Yellen 1980, TV-movie based on Arthur Miller's stage adaptation
  • Esther Bejarano and the girl orchestra of Auschwitz by Christel Priemer, 1992
  • Bach in Auschwitz by Michel Daeron, 2000


Perhaps the best known documentation of the orchestra is Fania Fénelon's vivid novel-memoir Playing for Time (an English translation of Sursis pour l'orchestre). This memoir, and the subsequent TV adaptation, has assumed an important place in Holocaust scholarship. Since its publication and tremendous commercial success, Fénelon's testimony has been accepted as truth and widely dispersed in a plethora of academic, popular, and musical resources. This has proved a source of great frustration and heartache for the other survivors of the orchestra, who almost unanimously found Fénelon's representation of their orchestra and its personnel false and demeaning. They have fought a fierce battle in the decades since Playing for Time appeared, to have the truth of their orchestra and its history represented. Some attention has been paid to their concerns, but in large part they have been ignored. The greatest sources of anguish are the inaccurate portrayal of Alma Rosé, the portrayals of many of the other musicians, and the diminishment by Fénelon of their bond and support for one another.[9]

Fénelon's controversial and disputed portrayal of Rosé presents the conductor 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 (for instance, 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, Fénelon was considerably older and far more experienced and sophisticated than the teenage girls in the orchestra, to whose immaturity she reportedly 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 and fear of the Catholic 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, although her dramatic temperament and her egotism do not go unremarked.

Other potential sources of controversy were represented by Fénelon's reconstructed conversations and thinly veiled name changes (Violette Silberstein-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.


  • Playing for Time. Translated from the French by Judith Landry. Atheneum New York 1977.
Authors: Fania Fénelon and 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 and Marcelle Routier
ISBN 0-689-10796-X.
  • Wir leben trotzdem. Esther Bejarano--vom Mädchenorchester in Auschwitz zur Künstlerin für den Frieden. Herausgegeben vom Auschwitz-Komitee in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland [We Live Nevertheless] e.V. Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag Bonn 2007.
Authors: Esther Bejarano and 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 and 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.
Authors: Violette Jacquet-Silberstein and 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 on 21 May 1984. Published at the Open University of Israel 2009.
Authors: Rachela Zelmanowicz Olewski and Jochevet Ritz-Olewski
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
  • The Truth about Fania Fenelon and the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Author: Susan Eischeid
ISBN 978-3-319-31037-4


  1. ^ "Women's Orchestra at Auschwitz - History of Orchestra". Womensorchestra.weebly.com. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
  2. ^ a b "Music and the Holocaust". Holocaustmusic.ort.org. 27 April 1942. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
  3. ^ "The Holocaust: Lest We Forget - Orchestras in concentration camps". Holocaust-lestweforget.com. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
  4. ^ Mary Deane Lagerwey Reading Auschwitz pg. 28, 1998, Altamira Press; ISBN 0-7619-9187-5
  5. ^ "Auschwitz violinist Violette Jacquet-Silberstein has died". thestrad.com. Retrieved June 15, 2018.
  6. ^ "Violette Jacquet-Silberstein (1925-2014), sept décennies de bonheur après Auschwitz". Lemonde.fr. 2016-10-14. Retrieved 2016-11-12.
  7. ^ "Google Translate". translate.google.com.
  8. ^ "fehrbelliner92:sylvia [Inge Franken]". www.inge-franken.de.
  9. ^ Eischeid, Susan (2016). The Truth about Fania Fenelon and the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 3. ISBN 978-3-319-31037-4.

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