For Alice Herz-Sommer, Oldest Holocaust Survivor, Music Was a Religion

Concerts Gave Hope to Concentration Camp Inmates

Alice in Musicland: A former concert pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer was known to say, “I am Jewish, but music is my religion.”
Alice in Musicland: A former concert pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer was known to say, “I am Jewish, but music is my religion.”

By Caroline Stoessinger

Published February 25, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
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At 110 years old, Alice Herz-Sommer died too soon.

As the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, Herz-Sommer, a noted musician, was limited in recent years in her daily existence. She lived alone in London in a tiny cocoon-like efficiency apartment. But she revered life and mused on its mystery and majesty. Where others saw a tree outside the window, Alice marveled at nature’s sculpture with its spreading branches draped in emerald green leaves.

A former concert pianist, Alice, who died on February 23, made her old upright piano into the centerpiece of her one-room home, which she decorated with pictures of her only child, Raphael, a cellist who died in 2001. She kept two diaries from pre-Holocaust Prague and a few mementos from her post-war life in Jerusalem in shoeboxes stored in a cabinet behind her single bed.

Alice had no interest in material acquisition or awards. On her 107th birthday, in 2010, Michael Žantovský, the Czech Ambassador to Britain, came with flowers to present her with an award from his government’s Ministry of Culture. But Alice, knowing his father had studied genetics, interrupted his speech. “I am not interested in any award,” she said. “I want to discuss how genes work.”

She delighted in technology, experimenting with her iPod and deftly using her television and video cassette player. One day, when I visited her, she inserted a DVD of her son Raphael conducting an orchestra. Clicking the play button, she said, “Now look, he lives. Maybe some day, with technology, there will be no more death.”

Alice lived a profoundly spiritual life. She often said, “I have lived my life in music. I will die in music.” Raised in the secular German Jewish community of Prague where Franz Kafka was her close family friend, Alice explained, “I am Jewish, but music is my religion.”

Alice practiced piano daily, usually three hours or more, up until the end. Following her Prague debut with the Czech Philharmonic at age 20, Alice enjoyed a significant career in her native Czechoslovakia and throughout central Europe. Max Brod, among others, wrote glowing reviews of her concerts. He particularly loved her expansive interpretation of Chopin’s “Concerto in E Minor.”

But her public performances came to an end when Hitler invaded Prague. Alice and her family were shipped to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Although Alice’s mother and husband were deported further east to their deaths, she was able to protect her only child, who slept with her in her bunk. After the war, Alice advised women, “When the child is held close to the mother, he knows no fear.”

In Theresienstadt, despite the endless hours she spent splitting mica chips as part of her forced labor, Alice played more than 100 concerts for her fellow prisoners. Her audience included the sisters of Kafka and Freud, famed German Reform Rabbi Leo Baeck and composers Viktor Ullman and Hans Krása. Survivors reported that in the hour that Alice played works by Beethoven, Bach and Schumann, they were mentally transported back to their former lives. “Alice gave us hope,” they frequently said. And Alice frequently repeated, “Music was the only thing that gave me hope.”

A witness to all the wars of the last century and a survivor of Hitler’s unspeakable evil, Alice lived her life in an authentic state of forgiveness. “I hate no one,” she said. “Hatred only brings more hatred.” Shortly after World War II, she visited Rabbi Baeck to discuss her desire to rebuild her life. “Carry only love and justice in your heart,” Baeck told her, articulating the sentiment by which Alice would live.

If Alice had let it be known that she was a Holocaust survivor when she reached Jerusalem, she likely would have performed with the Israeli Philharmonic and built an international career. But not even her students or colleagues at the Music Academy of Jerusalem knew what she had suffered. When I asked why she had not spoken of her years in a concentration camp, she said, “I did not want anyone to pity me,” adding, “my 37 years in Israel were the happiest days of my life.”

Her former students, who are today in their 70s, frequently flew to London to renew their inspiration after Alice moved there to be close to her son.

Alice was my own mentor and muse. Her world was the “World of Yesterday,” described by her favorite author, Stefan Zweig. It was a world of respect for learning, literature, music and the great composers. Looking at her hand, I often felt overwhelmed, knowing that it had touched the hand of her teacher, who had once touched Chopin’s hand.

Alice is no more, but her life of transcendent humanity is her immortal legacy.

Caroline Stoessinger, a pianist, is the author of A Century of Wisdom: Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (Random House 2012), on which the Academy Award-nominated short documentary, “The Lady in Number 6,” is based.

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