Among the slew of awards at the recently concluded Academy Awards ceremony, the film ‘The Lady in Number 6’ won an Oscar for the Best Short Documentary. It charts the life of a remarkable woman, Alice Herz-Sommer, who was the world’s oldest pianist and the oldest known living Holocaust survivor until she passed away aged 110, barely days before this award.
She was born Alice Herz in Prague (then in the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1904 to a merchant father and a mother who was extremely well-educated. The family salon hosted thinkers, philosophers, writers, musicians and composers, and the circle included the likes of Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler and the pianist Arthur Schnabel. She began formal music lessons at age five, and soon studied with Conrad Ansorge, pupil of Franz Liszt. Schnabel encouraged her to become a classical musician.
The family suffered deprivation from the time of the First World War, when her father lost everything in his business. “We realised as little children, what is war.”
She was the youngest pupil at the Prague Conservatory of Music. In 1931 she met Leopold Sommer, an amateur violinist and businessman and married him two weeks later. She became a concert pianist until the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia after which the anti-Semitic laws barred her from a career or from teaching non-Jews.
Although most of her Jewish friends and family emigrated to Palestine, Herz-Sommer stayed behind to look after her ill mother. Herz-Sommer, her husband and son were rounded up in July 1943 and sent to Terezin (Theresienstadt in German), a concentration camp that was used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis to delude the world media and the Red Cross into thinking that Jews were treated well under the ‘benevolent’ protection of the Third Reich.
Herz-Sommer played more than 150 concerts during the two years she spent here, for the prisoners and guards. Her son Stephen (later Raphael) was one of the few children who survived the camp. Her husband was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 where he perished of typhus, just before it was liberated. A friend saved his spoon and gave it to Alice. She cherished it to her dying day.
After Theresienstadt was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945, Herz-Sommer and her son returned to Prague and in 1949 emigrated to Israel, where she taught music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music until emigrating again to London in 1986. Her son Raphael went on to become a cellist and conductor.
Herz-Sommer lived a simple life in a single-room apartment in Belsize Park, practising the piano for three hours a day until the end. Until around the mid-2000s, she swam every day and attended philosophy classes thrice a week – walking to both.
Her life became the focus of much media attention, for being a Holocaust survivor and her longevity, but largely for her magnanimity, her optimism, her all-embracing capacity of forgiveness, and her passionate love of music.
She believed firmly in the elemental power of music: “Music saved my life, and music saves me still…I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”
Music did literally save Herz-Sommer’s life, as she was most likely chosen to go to Theresienstadt because of her skills as a pianist, and allowed to stay alive live there while nearly 35,000 others were sent to their deaths. She also knew that if she did not perform satisfactorily, or displeased her captors in any way, she and her son would be exterminated forthwith.
She spoke in an interview of the nourishment and hope that music provided the camp inmates. “People need hope when they are suffering…When the first note was played, everybody felt God is here. Somebody makes us happy. When we can play, it can’t be so terrible.”
Music was quite simply her obsession, her raison d’être. “My world is music. I am not interested in anything else…. Music is in the first place of art. It brings us on an island, with peace, beauty and love….Music is a dream”, she would say emphatically.
She attributed her longevity to two things: her optimism and music. “The life of a musician is a privilege. Of this I am sure, because, from the morning to the evening and from the evening to the morning, the musician is occupied with the most beautiful thing coming from mankind – music.”
Herz-Sommer harboured no feelings of hate for her past experiences. “I never hate. We are all sometimes good, sometimes bad.” She even went to the extent of saying she was “thankful and happy” for the experience.”Because I am richer than other people for it. My reaction to life is quite another one. People complain how terrible this or that is. It’s not so terrible.”
“My son was five-and-a-half years old [when at Theresienstadt]. He would ask ‘Mother, why have we nothing to eat?’ I didn’t know what to answer him.”
“I would laugh as much as possible. I was always laughing, even there [Theresienstadt]. How can a child not laugh when the mother laughs?”
“I believe men don’t need food, when we have something spiritual…. Music was our food. Through music we were kept alive.”
Asked what she had learned in her long life, she would reply: “To know the difference between what is important and what is not important.”
What gave her this boundless positivity in the face of unimaginable cruelty and hardship? It could be something innate, or her upbringing, but music certainly made a huge contribution as well.
She said, “We should thank Beethoven. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, for what they gave us. They gave us beauty, they gave us indescribable beauty. They made us happy”.
Her abiding joy of life was nothing short of inspirational: “Every day in life is beautiful. Every single day … is beautiful.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 16 March 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)