Oldest Living Shoah Survivor Still Smiling

Pianist Alice Herz-Sommer Has Seen Enough for Two Lifetimes

By Gordon Haber

Published April 06, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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

Alice Herz-Sommer
polly hancock
Alice Herz-Sommer

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.