Alice Herz-Sommer, who was considered to be the oldest living Holocaust survivor, died on Sunday at the age of 110 in London. Despite being imprisoned in a concentration camp, Herz-Sommer remained optimistic till the end, saying, “Life is beautiful…everything we experience is a gift.”
She lived an extraordinary life and attributed her longevity to her optimistic attitude. She was an accomplished pianist from Prague who knew famed writer Franz Kafka, whose best friend, Felix Weltsch, married Herz-Sommer’s sister. She is also the subject of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. The film, directed by Malcolm Clarke, is competing in the Documentary Short category and will unfortunately find out its fate just a week after Herz-Sommer’s death at 110 years old.
Herz-Sommer was born in Prague in 1903. After discovering a love for music at the age of three, she attended the German music academy in Prague at 16, making her the youngest student at the academy. Soon after she became one of the Prague’s most famous pianists.
In 1931, Herz-Sommer married Leopold Sommer and in 1937, they had their only child, Rafael. Two years later the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. The Nazis disallowed Jewish musicians to perform in public, so Herz-Sommer initially made a living by teaching piano lessons, but the Nazis then forbade Jews to teach non-Jews, and Herz-Sommer lost most of her pupils.
The Nazis arrested Herz-Sommer’s mother, who was 72 years old, in 1942 and subsequently murdered her. Herz-Sommer, along with her husband and their son, who was six years old at the time, was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943.
In order to create a false impression that the inmates at Theresienstadt concentration camp were receiving proper treatment, the Nazis allowed their prisoners to maintain their cultural lifestyle, including concerts performed by musicians such as Herz-Sommer.
Herz-Sommer said that whenever she knew she had a concert she was happy. The musicians performed in front of hopeless, sick, hungry people and “It was like food to them.”
In 1944, her husband was sent to Auschwitz. He survived Auschwitz but died at Dachau of an illness just weeks before the war ended. Herz-Sommer said that her husband’s last words to her saved her life, as he warned her against following him. The next day, the wives of the inmates who were transported to Auschwitz were told that they could volunteer to follow their husbands. Those who volunteered were murdered before ever reconnecting with their husbands.
The Soviet army liberated Theresienstadt in May of 1945. Two years later Herz-Sommer and her son moved to Israel, where she lived for almost 40 years teaching music at a conservatory in Jerusalem.
Herz-Sommer followed her son, Rafael, who became a cellist, to London. Rafael died of a heart attack in 2001.
Before dying at the staggering age of 110, Holocaust survivor Herz-Sommer had an interesting thought on life and death. When asked in 2006 whether she was afraid of dying, Herz-Sommer replied, “Not at all. No. I was a good person, I helped people, I was loved, I have a good feeling.”
By David Tulis