History of the Women's Orchestra

The Formation 

Maria Mandel was the SS commander of the women's camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was known for her fanatical admiration of beauty and love of music, but she was also known for her brutality. Her desire to further her own career was the motive behind forming a women's orchestra. However, forming an orchestra demanded a large organizational effort. One had to obtain sheet music, instruments, and other such equipment. Auschwitz proved to be a convenient place to obtain such items. “They agreed to supply us violins and all the necessary instruments in abundance. They had their own, and there were thousands of instruments from all over Europe from deportees who had been encouraged to bring along their most precious movable possessions, unaware that upon arrival everything would be taken away from the. Even the sheet music they brought with them was used by the camp orchestras. Auschwitz by this time was the Fort Knox of Europe, with all the possessions taken from people in the countless transports that arrived at the camps…” - Sofia Tchaikowska  

In the spring of 1943, Mandel broached the subject with the staff of the camp office. A survey of the office card files showed that a number of Polish women had some knowledge of music and played instruments. In most central European schools, teachers were required to have musical training, therefore former teachers were good prospects for a women's orchestra. Camp authorities met in April 1943 and decided to proceed with recruitment. Orders posted in various blocks within the women's camp requested prisoners with musical experience to come forward. Kapos and workers in the infirmary made announcements. They sought out new transports, but most of the time, the inmates were found by word of mouth. Fortunately, some inmates had stated they were professional musicians upon arrival. Despite the posted orders throughout the camp and announcements made, the recruitment process was often haphazard, and many were discovered only through chance conversations with SS officers or functionaries (Gilbert, Shirli).

The women's orchestra was formed in April 1943 under the leadership of the Polish prisoner Sofia Tchaikowska. Tchaikowska, a violinist, recruited other players from different barracks and new arrivals in the Quarantine Block. Her effort resulted in an esemble of fifteen by May 1943.

Early Stages

By the end of June 1943, there were approximately twenty members in the orchestra. Most of the women were non-Jews from Poland like Tchaikowska. Tchaikowska played from memory and arranged pieces from sheet music for different instruments. She was forced to recruit several copyists to orchestrate music and transpose parts for a combination of instruments. This was very challenging due to the flucatuation of membership. The copyists were forced to use a special kind of orchestration that designed pieces to be played by any combination of musicians. This was due to sudden "holes" in musical texture that were caused by the disappearance of certain instruments. Most of the time, copyists arranged music from piano scores or from memory. In addition, they were required to harmonize and arrange melodies chosen by the SS officers.  

With Tchaikowska as conductor, the orchestra was not important at first. However, in June 1943, the orchestra began to play a larger role within the camp. In the beginning, the repertoire was modest and consisted of a few German melodies. Then, the orchestra started to play in the hospital blocks. Eventually, they were ordered to play marches for the morning and evening parades of workers leaving for work and returning to camp for the evening roll call.