A Century of Wisdom: Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor
By Caroline Stoessinger
Spiegel & Grau, 256 pages, $23
Let us consider the astonishing story of pianist Alice Herz-Sommer. Born in prewar (that is, pre-World War I) Prague, Herz-Sommer survived Theresienstadt, made aliyah and finally settled in London. Along the way, she crossed paths with such world-historical figures as Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka and Golda Meir. Now 108, Herz-Sommer is renowned for her optimism — and for being the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor.
Caroline Stoessinger recounts all this in “A Century of Wisdom,” and I hope the reader will forgive me for feeling a little trapped. Given all of the above, how could I say anything bad about the book? How could any critic possibly be objective about it?
Maybe it’s best, before evaluating the book itself, to say more about its estimable subject. Herz-Sommer was born in 1903 to a merchant father and a cultured mother who were friendly with Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as Mahler and Kafka.
Herz-Sommer remembers Kafka as kind, indecisive and always “dressed for the office.” He was a regular at the house; he came to a Passover Seder and helped the kids search for the afikomen, the hidden matzo. One summer day, he took young Alice and her twin sister, Mitzi, for a hike; over a lunch of “magic sandwiches,” he told stories about “wild, imaginary beasts” (stories not recounted by Stoessinger, alas).
As an adult, Herz-Sommer built an enviable life for herself, one of hard work and modest comforts, friendship and art. She established a career as a teacher and concert pianist: Stoessinger reports that Max Brod, another family friend, wrote “glowing” reviews of her performances. In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer, a kind-hearted businessman. Their son, Rafael, was born in 1937.
It all ended in 1939, when Hitler’s army marched, unopposed, into Czechoslovakia. Brod had convinced Herz-Sommer’s sisters to immigrate with him to Palestine, but Herz-Sommer had been reluctant to leave behind her aging mother (her father had died in 1930, from natural causes).
In 1942, Herz-Sommer’s mother was sent to Theresienstadt. A year later, Herz-Sommer and her family followed.
The Nazis advertised Theresienstadt as a “spa town” where cultured Jews lived in relative comfort. In reality it functioned as a transit camp where Jews were housed before deportation to death camps like Auschwitz. It was also a labor camp. Stoessinger writes that Herz-Sommer “split mica chips for war production — hard and dangerous work for a pianist’s hands.”
But a rich cultural life did exist in the camp. Rafael, who showed an early talent for music, sang in “Brundibár,” a children’s opera; Herz-Sommer herself performed more than 100 times, usually in solo recitals played from memory.