World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor Celebrates 110th Birthday

Alice Herz-Sommer Remains Symbol of Indomitable Spirit

The Keys To Turning 110: Alice Herz-Sommer’s story has been told in such books as ““A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.”
Polly Hancock
The Keys To Turning 110: Alice Herz-Sommer’s story has been told in such books as ““A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.”

By Benjamin Ivry

Published November 27, 2013, issue of December 06, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Alice Herz-Sommer, the Czech pianist and Theresienstadt concentration camp survivor, celebrated her birthday on November 26th. A Londoner for three decades, Herz-Sommer had received the tribute of “Everything is a Present,” a 2009 film by the noted British documentarian Christopher Nupen who has also worked on films starring Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, and Pinchas Zukerman, among others.

Yet “Everything is a Present,” which was released when Herz-Sommer was a mere lass of 105, was not merely about music. For Herz-Sommer’s message about joyous survival amidst the most gruesome historical and personal tragedies struck a chord in a wide public. Recent books which likewise lauded the subject, and rightly so, include “Alice’s Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer” by Melissa Mueller and Reinhard Piechocki, followed by “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor” by Caroline Stoessinger.

The first-mentioned solid study was originally published in German in 2006, and in the UK in 2007 as “A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer” – subsequently revised and updated. The second is more an extended magazine article, with the “world’s oldest living” subtitle seeming in dubious taste, through no fault of Herz-Sommer’s. When dealing with some subjects, jockeying for giddy superlatives may appear unseemly, as in the 2012 controversy over Israel’s Miss Holocaust Survivor pageant. Yet despite any authorial pretensions and straining by others for unneeded superlatives, Herz-Sommer herself remained an unassumingly upbeat and life-affirming musician, which is one key reason to celebrate her.

“26 Reviews of Musical Events at Theresienstadt” a compelling 2011 publication, provides another, as well as evidence that Herz-Sommer was lucky even in her music critics. Not only were some musicians in concentration camps obliged to perform – she is listed in participating in over one hundred recitals during her imprisonment - but were also subjected to the judgments of music critics who published articles in camp-produced media. Herz-Sommer was not judged by some penny-a-line hack, but by the sensitive and insightful Silesian-born Austrian Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann, himself a fine pianist. In one 1944 review Ullmann, who would be murdered in Auschwitz later that year, called Herz-Sommer the “Freundin (friend or sweetheart) of Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin, alluding to her as “this great, diminutive artist and justly admired pianist.”

Yet beyond her artistry, Herz-Sommer had the inner fortitude to transcend not merely a great historical tragedy, but devastating personal loss, when her mother and husband were likewise murdered in concentration camps. And in 2001 her son Raphael, born in 1937 and like her a Theresienstadt survivor, died of an an aortic aneurysm. Having grown up to be a noted cellist and teacher in Israel - where he studied with the great French cellist and kibbutznik Paul Tortelier - and the UK, Sommer once told BBC Radio that at Theresienstadt, his mother “did everything to hide all the atrocities from me, and to create a kind of normality.” Ullmann was right; Herz-Sommer is still the piano world’s sweetheart. To the general public, she has also become something more: the symbol of an indomitable human spirit.

Benjamin Ivry writes frequently about the arts for the Forward.

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!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • 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.