Maria Mandl was known as The Beast.
As the top ranking officer in charge of the female inmates in Auschwitz, she oversaw a real life ninth, innermost circle of Dante’s hell.
Her fellow Nazis marveled at her “conviction to the cause” and the exuberance with which she dispatched her duties.
Duties being a euphemism for beatings, floggings, selecting who would live or die in the gas chambers, deciding who would be sent off for the grotesque medical experiments conducted by the Angel of Death (Dr. Joseph Mengele), unspeakable duties of evil that had to be cloaked in euphemism.
The same could be said of her exuberance. This was Nazi bureaucratic speak for the psychopathic level of Mandl’s bloodlust.
It is estimated that she was responsible for ordering the deaths of at least five hundred thousand women and children, some of whom she killed with her own hands.
Witnesses recall seeing her beat victims until she could no longer lift her arm. Others remember her executing an inmate with an axe. The stories of her wickedness are numerous and horrifying.
As prison camp survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl said, “Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of.”
Analyst Yolanda Gampel has asserted that the holocaust is the ultimate paradigm of evil.
Yet within that extermination machine, the human element could not be totally suppressed or controlled — even among those in charge.
In Mandl’s case, her heinous crimes were her defining characteristic, yet this monster had a refined taste in classical music. And because of that taste, some prisoners were able to emerge from Auschwitz alive.
Nazi concentration camps employed live music ubiquitously. “Orchestras” played classical pieces or contemporary songs to deceive new arrivals as they stepped off trains, coordinate inmates as they marched to and from their daily grinding labors, and most especially, to drown out the screams as victims were herded into the gas chambers.
The theory was that music aided in crowd control, reduced panic, and provided a false sense of assurance to those about to face their doom.
Music was also used to entertain — occasional Sunday performances for the prisoners, but most often for the Nazis at concerts and drinking parties.
Auschwitz had a symphony orchestra, a brass band and several other groups. Mandl founded the women’s ensemble in 1943: at one point, it was composed of 40 musicians, some well-trained, others of just passable skills.
Inclusion in these groups did not guarantee survival, given the capricious nature of the guards and the ultimate impetus behind the camps — the extermination of European Jews.
By Auschwitz standards, however, the musicians were “privileged.” They had better living quarters, actual rations and were able to shower with some frequency. While the men had to labor during the day, the female players were freed from work so that they could rehearse.
Even Mandl’s erratic, violent behavior was mostly held in check with the players: one musician, cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (pictured above), who survived the holocaust and is still alive, recalls that she successfully prevailed upon Mandl to assign her sister, also an Auschwitz captive, to a messenger’s job. An unheard of favor on Mandl’s part — Lasker-Wallfisch’s skill on the cello truly saved not only her life, but ultimately the life of her sister.
In her autobiography, “Inherit the Truth,” and in several documentary films, Lasker-Wallfisch documents the cosmic horror of Auschwitz. One episode, which well illuminates the situation, involved a meeting with the vicious Dr. Mengele.
Lasker-Wallfisch was busy in the rehearsal hall when Mengele approached her and told her to play the beautiful Schumann piece, “Traumerei.” She complied, knowing full well of the doctor’s dangerously unstable moods. When she was finished, he merely walked away without comment. Lasker-Wallfisch was later asked if Mengele thanked her for playing the piece – she replied, “Would you thank a telephone after using it?”
Eventually, the Allied forces triumphed and the camps were liberated. Mandl was tried as a war criminal and hanged in January 1948. To the end, she claimed that, under the circumstances, she “always cared for the prisoner’s well-being.”
Mengele escaped to South America, where he drowned while swimming in 1979.
More than 10,000 people from 40 plus countries participated in the annual “March of the Living” at Auschwitz on May 2, 2019. The event coincided with the worldwide Days of Remembrance, commemorating the Holocaust victims.
The motto for this year’s march was “No to Antisemitism.”
Lest we forget.