The World's Oldest Holocaust Survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, Dies at 110

Prague-Born Pianist Is Subject of New Documentary

Alice Herz-Sommer, pictured here on her 107th birthday, is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary.
Polly Hancock
Alice Herz-Sommer, pictured here on her 107th birthday, is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary.

By Ofer Aderet

Published February 23, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(Haaretz) — The world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, died Sunday at the age 110 in London. Herz-Sommer, a pianist, born in Prague, was the subject of a documentary “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life”, nominated for an Oscar this year.

“Young people take everything for granted, whereas we, the elderly, understand nature, “ Herz-Sommer told Haaretz in an interview at age 106. “What I have learned, at my advanced age, is to be grateful that we have a nice life. There is electricity, cars, telegraph, telephone, Internet. We also have hot water all day long. We live like kings. I even got used to the bad weather in London,” she said.

Besides her twin sister, Mariana, she had another sister and two brothers. She discovered a love for music at the age of 3, and it has remained with her to this day. Her family home in Prague was also a cultural salon where writers, scientists, musicians and actors congregated, among them Franz Kafka, who she remembers well. He was the best friend of the journalist, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch, who married her sister Irma.

“Kafka was a slightly strange man,” Sommer recalled. “He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories. He was an excellent writer, with a lovely style, the kind that you read effortlessly,” she says, and then grows silent. “And now, hundreds of people all over the world research and write doctorates about him.”

When World War I broke out, she was 11. Five years later she enrolled in the German music academy in Prague, where she was the youngest pupil. Within a short time she became one of the city’s most famous pianists, and in the early 1930s was also known throughout Europe. Max Brod, the man who published Kafka’s works, recognized Sommer’s talent and reviewed several of her performances for a newspaper.

In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer, also a musician. Six years later their only son, Rafael, was born. In 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.

This was a very difficult time for Sommer, who had stayed behind. The Nazis forbade Jews to perform in public, and so she stopped holding concerts and participating in music competitions. At first she was still able to make a living by giving piano lessons, but when the Nazis forbade Jews to teach non-Jews, she lost most of her pupils.

“Everything was forbidden. We couldn’t buy groceries, take the tram, or go to the park,” she said.

But the hardest times of all still lay ahead. In 1942 the Germans arrested her sick mother, Sophie, who was 72 at the time, and subsequently murdered her.

“That was a catastrophe,” Sommer said. The bond between a mother and her child is something special. I loved her so much. But an inner voice told me, ‘From now on you alone can help yourself. Not your husband, not the doctor, not the child.’


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!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • 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.