Memories of the women's camp orchestra. New Museum publication
“One of the Girls in the Band” is the title of the memoirs of Helena Dunicz Niwińska, a former prisoner of Auschwitz who spent two years playing in the women’s orchestra in the German Nazi camp of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This latest book published by the Auschwitz Museum is the first Polish publication devoted to the women’s orchestra. The book is also available in English.
The author decided to record her memoirs late in life at the age of 90. The main reason was to raise awareness for the future generations on how dangerous various, seemingly innocent, ideologies can be, along with the need to tell the tragic fate of the Dunicz family (the author lost her entire family, and only her brother survived the war, who until the end of his life remained in exile).
“My memories are of the fate of a violinist from Birkenau. Even if, every day, because of age, I am constantly forgetting something, I was never able to forget about the camp. It is the memory of a warning! I would like this to carry on well after I am gone. I have read the war memoirs of people who performed courageous acts, they undertook the highest risk for the Fatherland, to save other people, they were steadfast against the occupiers. I look on my fate and painful experiences as a part of everything that was a share of the average Pole. I was just a small cog which survived, in spite of being weak. One thing is certain: if not for the violin, I would not have survived,” wrote the author in the introduction.
In her book, Helena Dunicz Niwińska describes in detail the conditions under which women lived in the camp orchestra. “Despite appearances that this is a light Kommando, work came a price of great effort and moral suffering, which was related to the practicing of music in a place of such concentrated and horrific evil,” we read. The author also mentions how great a psychological burden it was playing in the orchestra, when thousands of Jews from all over Europe were murdered in the gas chambers by Germans. “On the surface, the Jewish members of the orchestra are not especially watching what was happening on the ramp; discernible however, was that each incoming transport deepened the gloom. We sympathised with them with all our hearts, we were especially aware of the tragic fate of the Jews,” writes Niwińska.
In the book, one can also find colour portraits of individual members of the orchestra. Niwińska devoted a lot of space to Alma Rosé, a talented violinist from Vienna and Gustav Mahler's niece, who - as a directress and conductor - was the driving force behind the band, and thanks to her hard work, the songs performed were of a high level, which was also praised by the SS. “I admired the talent of Alma in directing our team, only knowing at the time that before the war she was a concertante soloist-violinist. Meanwhile, here in Birkenau, she adapted various compositions for our amateur band, probably having extensive experience in this area,” recalls Niwińska.
Despite all the adversity, the ability to play the violin saved the life of the author of the book. In January 1945, Helena was moved from Auschwitz to Ravensbrück and Neustadt-Glewe, where she survived until liberation. Together with a camp colleague, Jadwiga Zatorska, she returned at the end of May to post-war Poland, without her beloved Lvov family. She lived with the Zatorski family in Kraków. There she soon became professionally involved with PWM (Polish Music Publishing), where she completed her work in 1975 as a deputy editorial director of publications for music education.
The book “One of the Girls in the Band” is now available in English from the online bookstore of the Auschwitz Museum as well as at sales points within the grounds of the Museum.
Helena Dunicz Niwińska was born in 1915 in Vienna. She lived in her hometown of Lviv until 1943 with her parents and brothers. At the age of 10, she began studying the violin at the conservatory of Polish Society of Contemporary Music. In the years 1934-1939, she studied pedagogy while continuing her musical education. She was arrested in January 1943, and from the Łącki prison in Lvov, she was transported, along with her mother, to Auschwitz in October 1943. In Birkenau – as a violinist – she was a member of the women’s orchestra until January 1945. She was evacuated to the camps of Ravensbrück and Neustadt-Glewe, which were liberated in May 1945. Together with a camp colleague, Jadwiga Zatorska, she returned at the end of May to post-war Poland, without her beloved Lvov family. She lived with the Zatorski family in Kraków. There she soon became professionally involved with PWM (Polish Music Publishing), where she completed her work in 1975 as deputy editorial director of publications for music education.