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!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • 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.