(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.’