On Sunday morning, at age 110, the holocaust survivor and pianist Alice Herz-Sommer passed away. With that, the world lost its oldest living witness to one of the greatest atrocities in the history of humankind. More significantly, it lost someone with a beautiful heart; someone with a message that cannot be understated in its positive and incredible nature. It is a message that she tried to share through both her music and through her story, both of which should be remembered forever.
Born in Czechoslovakia to a wealthy Jewish family, she could have had a very fortunate, prosperous life if history’s more tragic events did not come to pass. At the age of 5, she learned to play the piano from her sister. As a teenager, she made her debut as a concert pianist. Having married, she gave birth to her son Rafael (or Rafi) in 1937. Yet two years later, the die of history were cast and everything changed. Hitler’s troops entered Prague, and Nazi anti-Semitism swept over Czechoslovakia as it did all of Europe.
In 1942, Alice’s mother was sent to Thereisenstadt Concentration camp and she spoke of this as the lowest point in her whole life. “She was sent away. Till now I do not know where she was, till now I do not know when she died, nothing.” Alice, too, was sent to the camps in 1943 along with her son Rafi, then 6.
Alice and her son Rafi survived through merit of her musical capacity. Her talents were realised by the Nazis and she became a member of the camp’s orchestra, having given over 100 recitals over the course of the war. The music was both a means of surviving, a means of making the horrors of the camp bearable. She said of them, “These concerts, the people are sitting there, old people, desolate and ill, and they came to the concerts and this music was for them our food. Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive.” The composer Viktor Ullman said of the recitals in the camp, “For her, reproduction is actually creation: she identifies with the work and its creator.” She and her son were but two of twenty thousand Jews that survived the camp until it’s liberation by the Soviets in May 1945. The other 120,000 Jews that passed through the camp gates were not so fortunate, and were mostly sent to Auschwitz and other extermination camps — her beloved mother and husband being amongst that tragic figure.
After the liberation of the camp, Alice and Rafi left for Israel in 1949. There, Alice taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and continued to perform as a concert pianist. Her son became a concert Cellist. Although she said that she loved her many years in Israel, when her son moved to London in 1986, she came with him and settled there. Rafi died in 2001 in a car accident at the age of 65. Alice, however, did not simply get through the tragedy — she smiled through it, continuing to play music for four hours every day on her Steinway piano.
Alice Herz-Sommer was a miraculous woman in that she used her enduringly positive attitude and used it to sustain her through times that other people could not even imagine. The holocaust, the loss of her son, all of these tragic events were borne through her positive attitude and her harnessing of the power of music to keep her spirits up. “I know there is bad in the world, but I look for the good”. That is an outlook that so many of us envy. She lived a testament to the strength of the human spirit, and for that she is an inspiration to us all.
It is heartening that a short documentary about her life, “The Lady at Number 6” looks like a possible candidate for the Oscar for Best Short Documentary next weekend. It is an opportunity for her inspirational story to be shared with many more people, as it very much deserves to be. I first learned about Alice through watching an interview that she gave two years ago — It is 11 minutes that are worth watching and sharing with others.
Alice summed up her life in a few sentences, and a pause for reflection is very much a must for anyone who reads it.
“I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times – including my husband, my mother and my beloved son. Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.
“Life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love.”
Thank you for your life, Alice. Baruch Dayan haEmet.