Alice Herz-Sommer: an amazing woman who lived life with optimism and appreciation despite the hardships she was forced to endure. Born in Prague in 1903, she was the oldest Holocaust survivor, but even more, an amazing human being. She passed away February 23, 2014 at the age of 110, at peace, surrounded by her family.
At the age of 39, Herz-Sommer became an accomplished pianist, performing concerts and adept with the music of classical composers. She called Beethoven a miracle. In her forty-second year, however, her life was thrown into turmoil. World War II was well under way at that time, and the United States had entered the battle. Tension was mounting for all Jewish people living in Germany. So it was a dreadful day when her home was invaded, her entire family rounded up and shipped to concentration camps. She was imprisoned with her six-year-old son, Raphael, at Theresienstadt. Her mother was arrested and killed, and her husband died of typhus at Dachau in 1944.
Nazi Germany knew of her fame as a pianist and decided to use her to make a propaganda film exploiting her musical talent. At night she and her young son slept on the stone cold floor and she would soothe him through the night. At any moment of the day, the Nazis could order her to play the piano for propaganda, and she would comply. If she did not satisfy her captors, she and her son would both be exterminated. She performed one hundred fifty concerts while a captive.
Incredibly, Herz-Sommer found a way to survive and thrive, and her son survived, as well. Despite the drastic curves life threw at her, she remained full of joy. She knew that everywhere there existed bad influences, bad people, and despicable deeds, but she only focused on the good things. She had her son … she had music. And as long as she could play piano, or play with her son, she would say, it can’t be so terrible. This was the power of her amazing spirit.
Herz-Sommer and her son were often hungry, and her boy would cry for something to eat. She taught him to be thankful for what they did have. They were alive, they had no pain, and they could laugh, even under the harsh conditions of the camp. She made him laugh. When there was no food, she told him they didn’t need food; they could live off spiritual food … the food of laughter, joy, and thankfulness that they were alive, the knowledge that they would survive.
Learn to be optimistic! That was her mantra. Everything is a present, so be thankful for everything! And never hate anything because hatred breeds more hatred. She never allowed herself to hate anyone or anything, despite the deplorable conditions and unspeakable treatment in the camp. It was all a gift to test her strength. She had her son, and she kept him near her. She had her music every day. Music was everything, and music was the nourishment that kept her alive.
At the age of 104, she wrote a book called “The Garden of Eden in Hell.” It garnered international fame and was translated into several languages. In it she tells how her mother taught her to want to learn, to want to know things, and she was grateful to her for that gift. Be thankful every day for everything was her philosophy. Even at the age of 106, living alone in her flat in London, she practiced her piano two and a half hours each day, much to the delight of her neighbors.
If you asked her how she could be so optimistic, she would tell you that the moment she was born, she came out into the world, and she was laughing. Once liberated in 1945, she and Raphael moved to Israel to be with her twin sister, Mariana, who was the exact opposite of Alice. Whereas her twin waited for catastrophes to strike, Alice looked only at the good in life, letting her joy in living, her unbounded laughter, guide her through each and every day. With her music, not only was it a pleasure to hear, but in those dark days of the war, it was a therapy to the other victims of the death camp. After the war, and for the next sixty some years, music was her constant companion. Her son, Raphael, who was an accomplished cellist and conductor, died suddenly in 2001 after a concert tour at the age of sixty-four.
Known in those dark years as the lady in number 6, she leaves behind a sterling testament to her life and the credo that she may have been Jewish, but her religion was Beethoven. May she rest in peace.
By Christine Schlichte