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.”
YouTube
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


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!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • 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.