In the dark world of 65 years ago, in the shadow of Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria, a group of women stood and played music. Rachela (Rachel) Zelmanowicz was there too, a skinny and frightened girl. Her detailed
testimony out of the "other planet" of death is published now.
Rachel Zelmanowicz was born in Bendzin, Poland, 8 October 1921. On September 1st 1939, a month before her 18th birthday, war broke out. Her studies in the High school ended. Rachela lived in the ghetto until she was deported to Auschwitz with her father and brother.
Her father was murdered the same day they arrived to Auschwitz, which was also his birthday.
A shy girl, who played the mandolin only in the elementary school, she was pushed by her brother's fiancée to join the orchestra at Auschwitz, conducted by well-known violinist Alma Rose'.
Alma and the orchestra were the only chance of Rachela to escape certain death. Rachela played in great fear as she never played. Outside, death raged as Dr. Mengele was selecting people, but in the Block the orchestra was rehearsing.
Her brother took part in the Sonderkommando prisoners' revolt, and was murdered right after the failure of the revolt.
At the end of 1944 the Jewish girls of the orchestra were deported to Bergen-Belsen, where hunger and disease were taking lives of tens of thousands of peoples.
In April 1945 the British army released the notorious camp, and started a fierce struggle to save the rest of the survivors from dying of starvation and disease.
Rachela sought to immigrate to Palestine, but on her way she met Raphael Olewski, a handsome young man of a distinguished rabbinical family from Poland. He was one of the prominent leaders of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen.
They married and gave birth to their daughter Yochi. In 1949 the Zionist family came to Israel, and here was born their son Arie. The story of the women's orchestra was unknown for years, until in the 1980s people started to deal with it in literarture, theater, radio and TV.
Some books, plays and opera told the story of these amazing women's group. The first book was written in France by one of the survivors, later a play was written by Shmuel Hasfari, and Hollywood produced a film with the British actress Vanessa Redgrave.
In recent years, an extensive academic research about "Women in the Holocaust" was witnessed. Israeli Raanana Symphonette Orchestra dedicated concert series to the story of this special orchestra and its legendary conductor, Alma Rose'.
Rachela Zelmanowicz-Olewski was interviewed by Yad Vashem and gave detailed testimony.
Now her son and daughter made the testimony public, translated it into English and added some fascinating photos and documents, including a 60 years old "Hello from Hell" – an index working card of Rachela recorded by the SS in Auschwitz.
The testimony sheds light on the fascinating phenomenon that took place in the darkness of "other planet" of Auschwitz, and adds an authentic first-hand description for academic research in Israel and abroad.
The first edition of testimony in Hebrew and English was published privately and was printed courtesy of Bank Leumi at the Open University of Israel in Ra'anana.
P.O. Box 8199
Born in October 8th, 1921 in Bendzin, Poland. She was a thin and spoiled girl, and had very bad habits of eating [which later helped her survive in Auschwitz…].
In September 1st, 1939, a month before her 18th birthday, the war broke.
Her mother died while they were in the Bendzin ghetto.
August 1st, 1943: her brother Dov was deported to Auschwitz.
August 3rd, 1943: Rachela and her father were deported to Auschwitz.
Her father Leibek was sent to the gas chambers, on his 53rd birthday...
Rachela got a tattooed number on her left arm, 52816, and was later pushed by her brother's girl friend to join the women's orchestra of Auschwitz, in A-Lager, Block 15.
Rachela and some of her friends started to walk to Eretz-Israel. They reached as far as 20 km, to Celle. There, at the office of the Celle Jewish Committee, they met their future husbands.
January 15th, 1946: Rachela [who was then 24 years old] married Rafael Olewski , the first chairman of the Jewish community of Celle after 1945, and a prominent figure in the Jewish Central Committee of Bergen-Belsen.
The wedding took place at the reconstructed Celle synagogue, and the Rabbi who married them was Rafael's brother, the famous Celler Rabbi, Rabbi Israel-Moshe Olewski.
March 15th, 1947: Rachela gave birth to her daughter Jochi [Jochevet-Rivka], at the Glyn-Hughes hospital in Bergen-Belsen DP camp. April 3rd, 1949: Rafael, Rachela and Jochi made Aliya to Israel.
December 24th, 1950: Rachela gave birth to her son [Yehuda] Arie.
She was a loyal aid to her husband Rafael, who was the Chairman of the Bergen-Belsen survivors' Organization [She'erit Hapleta] in Israel, and Vice-President of the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen survivors.
He died in November 1981.
April 1985: Rachela traveled with Jochi and Arie to Germany and Poland, within the context of celebrating 40 years of liberation from Bergen-Belsen.
She arrived to Auschwitz and tried in vein to find her Block and her brother's letters to her, which she had hid near the block.
She also went to Bendzin and visited her home in Malachowskiego St. 10.
Rachela died of cancer at the age of 65 in August 17th, 1987