Book Reviews

Alma Rose - Vienna to Auschwitz
Richard Newman with Karen Kirtley

Reviewed by Reverend Glen Nelson.

Reverend Glen Nelson, is a Lutheran pastor (retired) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

Publisher: Amadeus Press, Portland, Oregon, 2000.

The mileage from Vienna to Auschwitz is not all that far geographically (less than 300 km as the crow flies according to my map), but in this biography of a gifted Jewish musician whose secure and cultured family in Vienna played hosts to the likes of her uncle Gustav Mahler, the maestros Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini and others of the European musical elite of the early 20th century, the distance is beyond imagining.

The story of Alma Rose falls roughly into three parts - her personal and professional life in the prewar world of the European music elite, her struggle to maintain an independent musical career in the face of ever-accelerating Nazi restrictions against Jews, and her heroic achievement of creating an orchestra dedicated to music excellence in the human abattoir of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The daughter of Gustav Mahler's sister Justine and Albert Rose, a Viennese violinist who was the highly-respected concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic for decades as well as the leader of a renowned string quartet, Alma grew up in an elite world saturated both with music-making and with an unquestioned assumption of its privileged place in society.

As Hitler's Nuremberg Laws closed in on Jews in Germany and then were successively applied in annexed and conquered territory - the Sudetenland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc. - the many Jews in this musical elite found their lives not only restricted, but endangered. Those who could, got out, and indeed, Alma managed with great difficulty to get her father Albert to England. But in her proud pursuit of her own musical career, she left England to settle in Holland where she hoped to continue her career as a virtuoso violinist, but found she could only manage to secure concerts in private homes, barely earning her keep.

When the Nazis decided to make Holland "judenrein" (cleansed of Jews), Alma made an attempt to escape to Switzerland. She was betrayed en route, shipped to the Jewish "holding tank" near Paris and finally brought to Auschwitz. She survived the initial selection process to be placed in the section dedicated to medical experiments. By a fluke, her musical career became known and her talent recognized, and she was appointed to be the director and "kapo" of the recently formed women's orchestra.

What is extraordinary in the brief ten months she held this position, is her insistence, in this hell-hole, on musical excellence. With poorly-trained musicians, a motley collection of instruments, the privations of this death camp (although orchestra members were provided with some amenities and better food), Alma succeeded in shaping an acceptable ensemble - impressing her captors so that visiting Nazi leaders were given special concerts.

Through these three segments of her biography, the writing becomes progressively more memorable and intense. It is in the last section that it becomes unforgettable. And it is here that the reader confronts a disorienting perspective on the Holocaust. Throughout the last section of the book, the stark realities of Auschwitz-Birkenau are described - reports of numbers killed in a day, a week, a month recur like a litany. Reports about someone being "sent to the gas" become as common and unremarked as we might report some fellow employee being disciplined.

It is then that the reader feels the impact of contradictions to this insanity. It is reported that Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician who sent millions to gas chambers, came to examine Alma in her final, fatal illness, and signed an order for a blood analysis. After her death, it is noted that her body was "respectably clothed" and "laid out on a white cloth atop a catafalque fashioned of two stools set side by side." A story describes Mengele's subsequent visit to the music barracks: "Elegant, distinguished, he took a few steps, then stopped by the wall where we had hung up Alma's arm band and baton. Respectfully, heels together, he stood quietly for a moment, then said in a penetrating tone, 'In memoriam.'" Such ordinary human actions in this setting trigger an unexpected surge of emotion. Having read about countless acts of inhuman cruelty, the appearance of simple kindness and respect is overwhelming, and I found the tears surging when the litany of death left me cold.

The author does not raise this question, but the reader may feel it to be inescapable: Is it really so far from Vienna to Auschwitz? from the Josef Mengele directing endless lines of Jews "to the gas" to the Josef Mengele standing in respect before a memorial of a Jew? Perhaps the distance between them is as paper-thin as human conventions. Perhaps there is no tough moral universe from which we may stray and to which we may return, existing eternally independent from human frivolity. Perhaps there is just us. Perhaps we humans are infinitely malleable. And if there are enough of us to sanction cruelty, then cruelty will become the kindness to which we now aspire.

If so, the responsibility of each of us grows in significance. Insofar as we are cruel, we contribute to Auschwitz. Insofar as we are kind, Auschwitz fades into an unthinkable nightmare.

Published here with the permission of Reverend Glen Nelson.
Reverend Glen Nelson, Lutheran pastor, 2001. 

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.