A triumph of the spirit

As part of Canada’s Holocaust Week, Ra’anana Symphonette to perform in Ottawa, playing works connected to Auschwitz victim Alma Rosé.

By
November 8, 2010 21:37
4 minute read.
Ori Vidislavski

Israeli composer Ori Vidislavski 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The Ra’anana Symphonette has been giving well-received performances to packed houses for more than two decades now, both in Israel and abroad. But the ensemble’s current foray to Canada is something quite special – and not just because of the musical content.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Symphonette will play at a number of venues in Ottawa as part of Canada’s annual Holocaust Week events. “It is a great honor and very moving to be taking part in the Holocaust Week there,” says Orit Fogel, director of the Ra’anana Symphonette. “We were invited by the Israeli Embassy in Canada and by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa. We will play for a number of non-Jewish schools, and our second concert will be at an event arranged by the government of Canada.”

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The latter performance will take place immediately following a discussion on contemporary anti-Semitism at the Canadian Parliament, which will also be attended by several Knesset members, including Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein.

“All the MKs and Canadian Members of Parliament will come straight to the concert after the parliamentary debate,” explains Fogel. “This is an official event sanctioned by the Canadian government. That shows how much importance Canada attaches to the Holocaust and to anti-Semitism.”

All the works the Symphonette will perform in Canada will be related to the Holocaust, with most of the works connected to Alma Rosé, an Austrian violinist of Jewish descent who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. Even among the many amazing testimonies that came out of the Holocaust, Rosé’s story is remarkable. She was a niece of composer Gustav Mahler and was a celebrated musician throughout Europe before World War II and founded the women’s orchestra Die Wiener Walzermädeln (The Waltzing Girls of Vienna).

“Traffic would stop when she crossed the road,” says Fogel. “She was a true celebrity.”

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DESPITE BEING born Christian – Mahler and his family converted to Catholicism 10 years before Rosé’s birth – she was still a target for the Nazis. She managed to escape to Britain in 1938 with her father, himself a violin virtuoso, but she went to Holland during the war to make a living by performing there. She spent most of her time in hiding, coming out to play solo in cafes. But in 1942 she was caught and eventually sent to Auschwitz and put in the infamous cell block 10, where Josef Mengele and other doctors conducted experiments on Jewish inmates. However, Rosé was eventually recognized there and was instructed to put together a women’s classical ensemble, the Madchenorchester von Auschwitz, primarily to play for the Jews as they were sent off to work each day.

“She was an amazing character,” says Fogel. “Although she didn’t survive herself – some say she was poisoned – all the other women did. She was responsible for saving the lives of 50 women. She was born into privileged surroundings, but she was able to understand the plight of others less fortunate than herself, and I think this came out at Birkenau, too.”

Rosé also made artistic compromises at the concentration camp and was willing to do anything she could to keep her fellow musicians alive. “There were all sorts of unusual instruments in her orchestra,” says Fogel, “like accordions, and not all the players were at a high performance level; but Rosé didn’t mind, even though she had set, and demanded, very high standards during her professional career.”

During the Ra’anana Symphonette’s visit to Canada, it will perform works played by Rosé’s ensemble in the concentration camp and by her pre-World War II orchestra, based on Rosé’s original arrangements.

“I find it astounding that the Madchenorchester von Auschwitz ensemble could play such beautiful and such merry works, like ‘The Blue Danube,’ in such terrible circumstances at the camp,” says Fogel. “It was a triumph of the spirit.”

The Symphonette’s program will open with Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, which Rosé and her father recorded together in 1926. There will also be a visual presentation of photographs of Rosé and narration about her life. The musical program also includes a work by Israeli composer Ori Vidislavski called The Last Waltz. Vidislavski, who is the son of a Holocaust survivor, has spent many years composing for the theater, including pieces that evoke the Holocaust. The Last Waltz is based on some of his work for the theater.

“The Last Waltz is like a continuation of Alma’s work. It starts out happy and ends with sadness – like Alma’s life. I feel a personal commitment toward her. I feel she is one of the outstanding figures in Jewish history,” declares Fogel, adding that she is particularly proud to be leading the Symphonette on this project.

“Most of the members of our orchestra came here from the Soviet Union about 20 years ago, and here they are now representing Israel in Canada,” she says.

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