Oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, dies at 110
Prague-born pianist who knew Kafka and lived in Israel for 40 years, dies in London.
“Young people take everything for granted, whereas we, the elderly, understand nature, “ Herz-Sommer told Haaretz in an interview at age 106. “What I have learned, at my advanced age, is to be grateful that we have a nice life. There is electricity, cars, telegraph, telephone, Internet. We also have hot water all day long. We live like kings. I even got used to the bad weather in London,” she said.
Besides her twin sister, Mariana, she had another sister and two brothers. She discovered a love for music at the age of 3, and it has remained with her to this day. Her family home in Prague was also a cultural salon where writers, scientists, musicians and actors congregated, among them Franz Kafka, who she remembers well. He was the best friend of the journalist, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch, who married her sister Irma.
“Kafka was a slightly strange man,” Sommer recalled. “He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories. He was an excellent writer, with a lovely style, the kind that you read effortlessly,” she says, and then grows silent. “And now, hundreds of people all over the world research and write doctorates about him.”
When World War I broke out, she was 11. Five years later she enrolled in the German music academy in Prague, where she was the youngest pupil. Within a short time she became one of the city’s most famous pianists, and in the early 1930s was also known throughout Europe. Max Brod, the man who published Kafka’s works, recognized Sommer’s talent and reviewed several of her performances for a newspaper.
In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer, also a musician. Six years later their only son, Rafael, was born. In 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.
This was a very difficult time for Sommer, who had stayed behind. The Nazis forbade Jews to perform in public, and so she stopped holding concerts and participating in music competitions. At first she was still able to make a living by giving piano lessons, but when the Nazis forbade Jews to teach non-Jews, she lost most of her pupils.
“Everything was forbidden. We couldn’t buy groceries, take the tram, or go to the park,” she said.
But the hardest times of all still lay ahead. In 1942 the Germans arrested her sick mother, Sophie, who was 72 at the time, and subsequently murdered her.
“That was a catastrophe,” Sommer said. The bond between a mother and her child is something special. I loved her so much. But an inner voice told me, ‘From now on you alone can help yourself. Not your husband, not the doctor, not the child.’
And at that moment I knew I had to play Frederic Chopin’s 24 etudes, which are the greatest challenge for any pianist. Like Goethe’s ‘Faust’ or Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ I ran home and from that moment on I practiced for hours and hours. Until they forced us out.”
In 1943, Sommer was sent to the Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp, along with her husband and their son, who was then 6 years old. The Nazis allowed the Jews to maintain a cultural life there, in order to present the false impression to the world that the inmates were receiving proper treatment. Sommer thus performed there together with other musicians.
“We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year,” she recounts. “The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. 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 September 1944, her husband Leopold was sent to Auschwitz. He survived his imprisonment there, but died of illness at Dachau shortly before the war ended. His departing words to her at Theresienstadt saved her life, says Sommer: “One evening he came and told me that 1,000 men would be sent on a transport the following day – himself included. He made me swear not to volunteer to follow him afterward. And a day after his transport there was another one, which people were told was a transport of ‘wives following in their husbands’ footsteps.’ Many wives volunteered to go, but they never met up with their husbands: They were murdered. If my husband hadn’t warned me, I would have gone at once.”
In May 1945, the Soviet army liberated Theresienstadt. Two years later Sommer and her son immigrated to Palestine, where they were reunited with her family: her twin Mariana, who had meanwhile married Prof. Emil Adler, one of the founders of Hadassah Medical Center (their son, Prof. Chaim Adler, is an Israel Prize laureate for education), and with Irma and her husband Felix (their grandson is actor Eli Gorenstein).
I don’t hate the Germans,” Sommer declared. “[What they did] was a terrible thing, but was Alexander the Great any better? Evil has always existed and always will. It is part of our life.”
In 1962, she added, she attended the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem: “I have to say that I had pity for him. I have pity for the entire German people. They are wonderful people, no worse than others.”
For almost 40 years Sommer lived in Israel, making a living by teaching music at a conservatory in Jerusalem. “That was the best period in my life,” she recalls. “I was happy.”
In 1986, Sommer followed her son, a cellist, and his family to London. She continued playing and teaching; to this day she devotes three hours a day to practicing. She speaks lovingly of her two grandchildren, whose father, Rafael, died of a heart attack in Israel in 2001, at the end of a concert tour. He was 64.
His birth was the happiest day of my life, and his death was the worst thing that happened to me,” she notes, but manages to find a bright spot even here. “I am grateful at least that he did not suffer when he died. And I still watch my son play, on television. He lives on. Sometimes I think it will be possible someday to postpone death through technology.”
When asked in 2006 what the secret of her longevity was, she answered: In a word: optimism. I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.” “My recommendation is not to eat a lot, but also not to go hungry. Fish or chicken and plenty of vegetables.”
When asked whether she was afraid of dying, she replied: “Not at all. No. I was a good person, I helped people, I was loved, I have a good feeling.”