NEW YORK — When Gustav Mahler's niece greeted new arrivals at a Nazi death camp, she knew that any woman who stepped off the train with a musical instrument had a chance to live.
Women in Alma Rose's orchestra were forced to entertain SS officers at the Birkenau concentration camp.
All the women survived — except Rose.
Now, an American chorus and orchestra is paying tribute to those musicians with concerts in the U.S. and Germany titled "Music in Desperate Times: Remembering The Women's Orchestra of Birkenau."
On Saturday, Ars Choralis played at Manhattan's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, whose Episcopal bishop had spoken against the persecution of Jews in Europe already in 1933.
During the 18 months the Birkenau orchestra existed, its musicians played pieces the German officers loved — Beethoven symphonies, Puccini arias, Chopin and Strauss waltzes. The women also had to play marches for emaciated, often sick prisoners as they struggled to walk to their forced labor jobs.
All around was death — people perishing outdoors, or in filthy barracks and gas chambers. More than 1 million disappeared in this place of horror.
When the Vienna-born Rose (pronounced roh-ZAY') was sent to the camp, the SS guards realized she was Mahler's relative and had conducted an all-women's orchestra. She was asked to form one at Birkenau, for the pleasure of the Nazis.
"As the women came off transport trains, if they had a guitar, a violin, a recorder or a mandolin, they were put aside," said Alice Radosh, who helped organize the Ars Choralis concerts. "People would hear classical music — and think, 'How bad could this be?' "
The truth was, "we played with tears in our eyes and guns at our backs," Radosh quoted accordion player Esther Bejarano as saying after the war.
They were still expected to play well — or face possible death.
"At Birkenau, music was indeed the best and worst of things," wrote the late Fania Fenelon, a cabaret singer from Paris who wrote the book "Playing for Time," which was turned into a television movie starring Vanessa Redgrave.
"The best because it filled in time and brought us oblivion, like a drug; we emerged from it deadened, exhausted," Fenelon said, "and the worst because our public consisted of the assassins and the victims, and in the hand of the assassins, it was almost as though we too were made executioners."
With the orchestra, Rose saved more than 50 women, including Fenelon, who died in 1983; three are still alive.
Exactly what killed the great composer's niece remains a mystery. A document signed by Josef Mengele on April 4, 1944, shows that the Nazi SS physician who performed experiments on prisoners was summoned to a special private room where Rose lay, slipping in and out of consciousness from an undiagnosed illness. Mengele signed a form requesting medical tests for meningitis and pneumonia that came out negative.
Rose died the next day, her arms twisted in seizures. She was respectfully laid out atop a white cloth, with floral tributes sent by SS officers, according to Fenelon's book.
Mourners filing by included her musicians and the orchestra's protector, Maria Mandel, the camp's sadistic chief of female wardens. Mandel was a fan of classical music and of the 37-year-old conductor, whom she mourned openly, according to the 2000 biography "Alma Rose, Vienna to Auschwitz" by Richard Newman.
In October 1944, the Jewish women in the orchestra were evacuated by cattle car to the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany where Anne Frank died, according to Newman's book. The non-Jews were sent from Birkenau to neighboring Auschwitz.
Although there was no chorus at Birkenau, the 48-voice Ars Choralis serves as a kind of "Greek chorus," commenting on the human tragedy six decades ago at the death camp in Poland.
At Birkenau, the musicians performed in lavender scarves and white blouses, as do members of the Ars Choralis ensemble. Ars Choralis includes the usual violin, cello, flute and percussion, plus mandolin, accordion and recorder.
The upcoming program will combine music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Puccini with words read from the wartime musicians' memoirs, as well as the "Song of Faith," a Yiddish piece sung in camps, Gyorgy Ligeti's "Solitude," and Ben Steinberg's "Shalom Rav," a peace prayer.
"This is amazingly uplifting music," Radosh said.
The not-for-profit Ars Choralis is itself a story, of how a small town in upstate New York — Woodstock — recruited singers representing a cross-section of the community, from teachers and nurses to gardeners and contractors. The orchestra and soloists are hired professionals.
The Birkenau story "reaches into the heart of the listener and opens it to human suffering, but also inspires somebody to do something about it, to respond and change things," said Barbara Pickhardt, Ars Choralis' founder and music director.
Ars Choralis will travel to Berlin for an April 17 concert at the city's Heilig Kreuz Kirche, an ecumenical Protestant church that had been damaged by Allied bombs.
The group will also perform on April 18 and 19 for the annual liberation day ceremonies at Ravensbrueck, an all-women's camp near Berlin.
The printed program for the concerts includes the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, saying that "the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent, whenever, wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation."