Alice Herz-Sommer: the pianist who's a true survivor

By Amos Witztum, May 22, 2012

A Century of Wisdom, by Caroline Stoessinger, Two Roads, £12.99

Alice Herz-Sommer is 108 years old. She is a true survivor of the 20th century. Having journeyed from the peak of Germanic culture in the salons of Prague and Vienna through its depraved depths in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt and on to its rejuvenation in the most unexpected of all places, Israel, and latterly London, Alice has traversed the scope of humanity possibly more than any other person before her. Even her great hero, Stefan Zweig, could not withstand such a journey and took his own life in the chaos of Brazil.

Yet Alice, a pianist of outstanding accomplishment, remains supremely optimistic. It is therefore not a surprise that her life has attracted a great deal of attention. She had been the subject of numerous documentaries and at least one book before the emergence of this new title.

Understandably, therefore, Caroline Stoessinger has attempted to take a different approach. She set out to learn a personal lesson from Alice’s life: how to summon up the strength and stamina to carry on living in spite of whatever life throws at you. In many respects, that is indeed the essence of Alice’s remarkable resilience but as to where it comes from, the book does not really offer an answer.

Much of the book is a rehashing of what has already been written about Alice Herz-Sommer’s life. Where it deviates from this familiar narrative, Stoessinger seems to have relied heavily on artistic licence. That a story she relates about Alice and Golda Meir, for instance, is an invention could be ratified by checking with the still active Alice.

As a long-standing friend of Alice’s, I found myself having to suspend disbelief in order to continue through many of the book’s more gushing passages. Certainly she has met a great many people during her long life but would surely be shocked by the impression given by Stoessinger’s account that she somehow has a connection to today’s obsession with celebrity.

It is tempting to cite Alice’s love of music as the key driving force behind her fortitude and longevity. However, there were many people who loved music passionately but perished in the camps or succumbed to their own personal tragedies. While it is true that musicians often enjoy longevity — and quite understandably given that playing and memorising music keeps the brain active — it is surely the famously indefatigable Herz-Sommer optimism and belief that life is always worth living that has kept her thriving over so many years.
Stoessinger’s adulatory tone does not allow her to deal with, for example, her subject’s impatience with people whom she regards as being outside, or unfamiliar with, European culture. Herz-Sommer is by no means a snob and would never treat people who do not conform to her notion of intellect in a way other than respectful but she would rather not spend too much time with them.

As a result of her immersion in the continental scene, the dualism between mind and matter — as well as the related distinction between appearance and substance — has always been quite dominant in Alice’s thinking. Her unwavering belief in humanity stems from her admiration of what she sees as its essence rather than its appearance.

Human intellectual achievements in music, science, literature, art and philosophy help her to understand and even forgive many of humanity’s sins. At the same time, the aspiration to attach herself to such achievements beyond her own in music is what constitutes her love of life and the desire to continue as long as possible to celebrate the beauty of the human spirit.
So if there are lessons to be drawn from Herz-Sommer’s life, or her wisdom, they go far deeper than her admittedly endearing personality.

Amos Witztum teaches at the London School of Economics

Last updated: 10:51am, May 22 2012