Alma Ros (1906-1944) was born into the elite of belle-epoch Viennese society. Her father Arnold was the first violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic and Opera Orchestra as well as leader of the renowned Ros String Quartet. Her mother was the sister of the great composer/conductor Gustav Mahler.
Like Mahler himself, the family converted to Catholicism for career reasons, so that Arnold could be appointed concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic - a position he held from 1881 to 1931.
Alma, a gifted violinist, made a name for herself as founder of a woman's orchestra, Die Wiener Walzerm deln (The Waltzing Girls of Vienna), which toured Europe.
But in 1938, six years after its founding, Alma and the Jewish members of her orchestra had to flee for their lives when Nazi Germany annexed Austria.
Though she made it to London with her parents, Alma couldn't live without performing, and subsequently returned to the continent and a career in Holland. Following the round-up of Jews in that country, she tried to escape to Switzerland, but was betrayed in France. She was arrested and sent to the Vichy internment camp of Darcy. From there she was transported in July 1943 to Auschwitz, where she was selected as a subject for scientific experimentation. But her name was recognized in time, and she was instead assigned to conduct the M dchenorchester von Auschwitz (Girls' Orchestra of Auschwitz).
Alma transformed what had been an ensemble of amateur musicians into a high-quality ensemble that won its members a reprieve from the gas chambers while she was at its helm. Even when members fell ill, they were given medical treatment. Alma herself died in Auschwitz on April 4, 1944 at the age of 36, most probably from food poisoning.
Many people know of the orchestra through the famous 1980 TV movie Playing for Time, which was based on The Musicians of Auschwitz, the memoir of vocalist/pianist Fania F nelon, one of the orchestra's handful of professional musicians.
F nelon vilified Alma as abusive to the musicians and toadying to the camp commanders. Penned by Arthur Miller, the movie starred middle-aged Vanessa Redgrave as F nelon (who was a young woman at the time), and plain, older Jane Alexander as the beautiful Alma.
Yet the other members of the orchestra have risen to their dead conductor's defense, pointing out that only by keeping their captors satisfied with high-level performances could the 40 young women under her charge be kept alive. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, another professional member of the orchestra who later became a cellist in the English Chamber Orchestra, recalled Alma in her own memoirs as "a woman of immense strength and dignity... who helped us survive." Fellow orchestra survivor Helene Scheps agreed: "Alma saved our lives because she knew how to make an orchestra of us. If Alma hadn't been there, we wouldn't be here."
Sunday night, on the eve of Holocaust Day, the Tel Aviv Opera House will host a concert by the Ra'anana Symphonette of the repertoire that Alma's orchestra played at Auschwitz - Johann Strauss, Berlioz, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, among others - using the orchestrations she made with the instruments at her disposal there: a string section, accordions and a mandolin.
Nita Tzuri will play on a violin whose unknown owner was murdered in Auschwitz, and which was borrowed from violin maker Amnon Weinstein's collection of instruments whose owners died in the Holocaust. Poems and selections from Alma's will be read during the evening as well.
Sunday, 9 p.m., Opera House, Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, Sderot Shaul Hamelech 19, Tel Aviv, free