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.

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And at that moment I knew I had to play Frederic Chopin’s 24 etudes, which are the greatest challenge for any pianist. Like Goethe’s ‘Faust’ or Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ I ran home and from that moment on I practiced for hours and hours. Until they forced us out.”

In 1943, Sommer was sent to the Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp, along with her husband and their son, who was then 6 years old. The Nazis allowed the Jews to maintain a cultural life there, in order to present the false impression to the world that the inmates were receiving proper treatment. Sommer thus performed there together with other musicians.

“We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year,” she recounts. “The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”

In September 1944, her husband Leopold was sent to Auschwitz. He survived his imprisonment there, but died of illness at Dachau shortly before the war ended. His departing words to her at Theresienstadt saved her life, says Sommer: “One evening he came and told me that 1,000 men would be sent on a transport the following day - himself included. He made me swear not to volunteer to follow him afterward. And a day after his transport there was another one, which people were told was a transport of ‘wives following in their husbands’ footsteps.’ Many wives volunteered to go, but they never met up with their husbands: They were murdered. If my husband hadn’t warned me, I would have gone at once.”

In May 1945, the Soviet army liberated Theresienstadt. Two years later Sommer and her son immigrated to Palestine, where they were reunited with her family: her twin Mariana, who had meanwhile married Prof. Emil Adler, one of the founders of Hadassah Medical Center (their son, Prof. Chaim Adler, is an Israel Prize laureate for education), and with Irma and her husband Felix (their grandson is actor Eli Gorenstein).

I don’t hate the Germans,” Sommer declared. “[What they did] was a terrible thing, but was Alexander the Great any better? Evil has always existed and always will. It is part of our life.”

In 1962, she added, she attended the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem: “I have to say that I had pity for him. I have pity for the entire German people. They are wonderful people, no worse than others.”

For almost 40 years Sommer lived in Israel, making a living by teaching music at a conservatory in Jerusalem. “That was the best period in my life,” she recalls. “I was happy.”

In 1986, Sommer followed her son, a cellist, and his family to London. She continued playing and teaching; to this day she devotes three hours a day to practicing. She speaks lovingly of her two grandchildren, whose father, Rafael, died of a heart attack in Israel in 2001, at the end of a concert tour. He was 64.

His birth was the happiest day of my life, and his death was the worst thing that happened to me,” she notes, but manages to find a bright spot even here. “I am grateful at least that he did not suffer when he died. And I still watch my son play, on television. He lives on. Sometimes I think it will be possible someday to postpone death through technology.”

When asked in 2006 what the secret of her longevity was, she answered: In a word: optimism. I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.” “My recommendation is not to eat a lot, but also not to go hungry. Fish or chicken and plenty of vegetables.”

When asked whether she was afraid of dying, she replied: “Not at all. No. I was a good person, I helped people, I was loved, I have a good feeling.”

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