Known as the oldest living Holocaust survivor which she claims is due to her musical talent, Alice Herz-Sommer passed away in a London hospital on Feb. 23, 2014. Born on Nov. 26, 1903, Alice was 110 years old. She had been living in London, England since 1986. Though the path that Alice’s life took bore her many twists and turns, Alice attributed her longevity to a positive outlook on life. How, one might wonder, did she maintain such an outlook in the face of so much danger and human suffering? To Alice, the answer was simple- music. Her life was proof of the power of dreams.
“Music saved my life and music saves me still. I may be Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.” She recalled having been taken by the Nazis to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in July of 1943. At the time, she was living in Prague, the city where she was born. The invasion of Czechoslovakia had driven most of her family out. Though most had emigrated, Alice stayed behind to look out for the welfare of her mother, Sophie, who was ill and unable to travel. Ultimately, the pair was arrested by the Nazis and Sophie was killed.
Alice was then transferred to Theresienstadt, where she was ordered to perform concerts on the piano. It was that musical talent which saved her life. Music gave her a life line, which helped her keep sight of her dreams, even in treacherous conditions. She felt strongly that the music saved not only her life, but the lives of countless others who were starving and riddled with disease. She noted: “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 the face of terror and loss, Alice drew strength from her music to carry on. The music she played seemed to transport her out of the fear and the tyranny and gave her a mechanism to cope with the bleak circumstances of life in a concentration camp. Miraculously, Alice was able to remain with her son, Raphael, who represented a very small number of children who actually survived Theresienstadt. Her husband, Leopold Sommer, had been separated from them during the invasion of Czechoslovakia and transported to Dachau. He managed to survive until just six weeks prior to the time the Jews were freed.
In 1949, Alice and Raphael emigrated to Israel to join the rest of their family. This proved to be a good life for them. No longer living in the dark shadows of Theresienstadt, her dreams became real when Alice became a music teacher for The Jerusalem Academy of Music. Her career with this institution spanned over the course of 40 years. In 1986, the two moved to London, where she continued to live until her death. Her life was a testament to the power of a positive attitude, never allowing herself to sink into despair. She used music as a medium to heal her wounds and the wounds of others. Her influence has touched the lives of many.
In fact, the life story of Alice Herz-Sommer was the subject of a documentary entitled, “The Lady in Car 6.” Herz-Sommer’s strength and fortitude are an inspiration to all, proving that there is no obstacle too great to hinder a goal. Her memory as the oldest known Holocaust Survivor is a permanent example of utilizing a positive attitude to survive and thrive in any situation, and the true power of never losing sight of dreams.
By: J.A. Johnson