Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz

The Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz (Mädchenorchester von Auschwitz or „Girls’ Orchestra of Auschwitz”) was formed by order of the SS in 1943, during the Auschwitz II-Birkenau extermination camp. The orchestra was active for 19 months from April 1943 until October 1944 and was formed mostly of young Jewish and Slavic female prisoners of different nationalities. They had to rehearse for up to ten hours a day with a goal of, as SS saw it, helping the morale of the camp. The orchestra also had to perform for the SS every Sunday.

The orchestra was formed by SS-Oberaufseherin Maria Mandel, supervisor of the women’s camp in Auschwitz, and SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Franz Hössler, the women’s camp commandant. The orchestra served the Germans as a propaganda tool for visitors and as to boost the morale of the camp. The orchestra was small at first with Polish music teach Zofia Czajkowska as the head until May 1943 when the Jews started pouring into the camp. Afterward, the members came from various countries, including Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands, Russia, and Ukraine.

According to professor of music Susan Eischeid, at first, the orchestra had 20 members up until June 1943 and later expanded to 42 to 47 players and 3 to 4 musical copyists by 1944. The primary goal of the orchestra was to play at the gate for departing and returning work details, sometimes they had to play during ‘’selections’’ and in the infirmary. Orchestra more often than not had to play for hours and under all-weather conditions.

In the beginning, the orchestra consisted mainly of amateur musicians, with a string section, accordions, and a mandolin. The few instruments and sheets of music they had come from the men’s orchestra of the main Auschwitz camp. The repertoire was also limited, lacking sheet music, the knowledge of the conductor, and the wishes of the SS limiting the repertoire further. Mostly German marching songs were played, as well as the Polish folk and military songs. At the time, there were only two professional musicians, cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, and vocalist/pianist Fania Fénelon.

In August 1943, the first conductor, Zofia Czajkowska was replaced by Alma Rosé, an Austrian-Jewish violinist, the daughter of Arnold Rosé, leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and niece of Gustav Mahler. She used to lead the Wiener Walzermädeln, a small orchestra in Vienna. By January 1944, the orchestra expanded and had 47 members, including 5 singers. After the death of Alma Rosé on 5 April 1944, the conductor position was given to Sonia Winogradowa, a Ukrainian pianist. The orchestra performance declined for various reasons, including shortened rehearsal times, Sonia’s inexperience and it stopped performing in October 1944. On November 1 of the same year, the women’s orchestra of Auschwitz was evacuated to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where there was neither orchestra nor special privileges. Non-Jewish members of the orchestra were transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp on 18 January 1945.

Our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau

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