Born in Vienna, Alma Rosé (1906-1944) was a gifted violinist with an illustrious concert career. Her mother was the sister of composer, Gustav Mahler, and her famous father, Arnold, conducted orchestras. All the family members were non-observant Jews. Alma was talented, beautiful, audacious, and arrogant. After an unhappy early marriage to Czech violinist Vása Príhoda, she established a remarkable orchestra for women that toured Europe.

As the German Third Reich consolidated its power, her only brother, Alfred, fled to the USA. She managed to bring their widowed father to England, but displaced musicians crowded London making work difficult to find. Alma left her father and returned to the continent, living quietly as a boarder in Holland and giving house concerts when and where she could. She took lovers.

Despite the urging of her family and friends, she kept deferring a return to safety in England. In early 1943, she was arrested and transported to Drancy near Paris, thence to Auschwitz six months later. Initially sent to a barrack for sterilization research, she revealed her musical brilliance and was removed to marginally better accommodations and allowed to assemble an orchestra of women players.

The hungry musicians were granted precarious privileges, but Alma became obsessed with their progress and insisted on a grueling schedule of rehearsal and perfection. Some said that she believed that survival depended on the quality of their playing; others recognized that the music, like a drug, took her out of the horror of her surroundings.

In April 1944, she died suddenly of an acute illness thought to have been caused by accidental food poisoning. In a bizarre and possibly unique act of veneration for Auschwitz, her body was laid "in state" before it was burned. Most members of her camp orchestra survived the war.


This riveting biography of an extraordinary woman is meticulously researched and well contextualized. It relies on privileged sources: a remarkable cache of letters sent to and from Alma and extensive interviews with her acquaintances and camp survivors. The idyllic ambience of early twentieth-century Vienna slides into the austerity and chronic insecurity prior to the Anschluss and beyond.

Alma's fortunes steadily decline; yet within the increasingly stringent confines of her life, she retains confidence in herself and in music. A marked shift in tone occurs at the moment when Alma is captured and her letters cease; henceforth, the narrative must rely on third person recollections and sophisticated reconstruction. The careful tracking of Alma's movements also results in an impressively detailed account of the conditions and routines of Auschwitz.

One motivation for this work was the family's sorrow at the cruel portrayal of Alma in an earlier memoir published by Fania Fenelon, a survivor of the camp orchestra whose memoir was the basis for a 1980 made for TV movie, "Playing for Time." In Newman's book, Alma emerges as human, remote, and at times selfishly inconsiderate, but her reputation is more than redeemed by the testimony of many other survivors who remember her insisting on including them in the orchestra although they could scarcely play. They derived inspiration and consolation from her unflinching courage against their Nazi persecutors. Alma rarely cried, and she never begged.

Excerpts of the sections on Auschwitz would provide focus for discussions on the ravages of torture and on the therapeutic potential of music in painful and desperate settings. For more information about music in concentration camps, visit


Written with the editorial assistance of Karen Kitley


Amadeus Press

Place Published

Portland, Oreg.



Page Count