Obituary: Alice Sommer-Herz

By Gloria Tessler, February 24, 2014
Alice Sommer-Herz

Alice Sommer-Herz


She has been called the supercentenarian, the oldest known Holocaust survivor, but it was music that helped sustain Alice Sommer-Herz throughout the Nazi years and beyond.

A renowned concert pianist, her epiphany was not a religious one – she called herself Jewish without religion -but the music of Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Schumann.

In Terezin, the transit camp to Auschwitz, the music she played to fellow inmates was an island which gave her, in her words, “peace, beauty and life."

In an interview with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger when she was 103, and still practising the piano for three hours a day, he describes her as the most optimistic person he had ever met.

A 38-minute film about her life, "The Lady in No. 6: Music Saved My Life” has been nominated for best short documentary at next week’s Academy Awards.

Her life has inspired two books, A Garden of Eden in Hell, by Melissa Mueller and Reinhard Piechocki and A Century of Wisdom: Lessons fromn the Life of Alice Sommer-Herz, the World’s Oldest living Holocaust Survivor by Caroline Stoessinger.

Until she was 97 Alice went swimming every day at the Swiss Cottage pool near her Belsize Park home. She would play a Bach prelude each day.

Alice and her twin sister Mariana were born in German-speaking Prague to Friedrich and Sofie Herz. He was a merchant and her highly cultured mother had a musical background and a galaxy of gifted friends, among them Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler. Sofie introduced her daughter to Mahler’s second symphony when Alice was eight. Listening to his music in recent years always revived memories of her mother.

She began playing the piano when she was five, first taught by her elder sister Irma, then studied with Conrad Ansorge, a pupil of Liszt, and finally at the Prague German Conservatory of Music. She taught piano and toured as a pianist, playing Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Suk and Smetana. Music dominated the family. Her sister sang in a performance of Mahler’s eighth symphony.

In 1931 Alice met her future husband, businessman, amateur musician and linguist, Leopold Sommer and they married two weeks later. In 1937 their only son Stefan, who later changed his name to Raphael, was born and was destined to become a concert cellist.

But in March 1939, Hitler entered Czechoslovakia and life became impossible for the Jews. Privations were imposed on food, possessions and worst of all for Alice, was the enforced wearing of the yellow star which meant that her non-Jewish friends did not dare look at her. Most of her family and friends emigrated to Palestine via Romania, but Leopold insisted on remaining in Prague to take care of her ailing mother.

For some time the family were allowed to stay in their own flat, sandwiched by Nazis in the flats above and beneath them, but in 1942 the 73-year-old Sofie was sent to Terezin, and within a few months to Treblinka.

“And I went with her, of course, until the last moment,” said Alice. “This was the lowest point in my life. She was sent away. Until now I don’t know where she was. Until now I don’t know when she died."

Alice’s emotional refuge was labouring through Chopin’s 24 Etudes for up to eight hours a day. In 1943 she and her husband and son were sent to Terezin. She recalled her Czech friends arriving silently the night before her departure, removing their possessions, as though they were dead, and a Nazi neighbour who called to say he would miss her playing.

“The Nazi was the most human of all,” she said.

At Terezin, where prisoners were allowed to perform plays and concerts, largely to divert the attention of the gullible Red Cross she played more than 100 concerts with many other gifted musicians. She recalled that she was always laughing here, where the joy of making music superseded her fear. It may have been a case of dancing beneath the gallows but she insisted that - “Music was our food; through making music we were kept alive".

Raphael also performed in Hans Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar, and he was one of only 130 out of 15,000 children sent to the camp to survive the war. In 1944 Leopold was sent to Auschwitz and then Dachau where he died from typhus six weeks before the end of the war, leaving Alice to bring up Raphael alone.

After a painful return to Czechoslovakia, where she knew nobody, she joined her twin sister in Jerusalem in 1948 and taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory until 1986, when she moved to London at the urging of her son. Raphael died suddenly while on tour in 2001, aged 65.

The music and her philosophic nature kept Alice from bitterness, right into old age. She brought up her son without hatred, believing that there is good and bad in each person. She would quote Plato who said that music was a moral law and she described Beethoven as “a miracle – not just the melody but what is inside”.

Alice retained her optimism right to the end. “The world is wonderful,” she said. “It is full of beauty and full of miracles.”

Alice is survived by her grandsons David and Ariel Sommer and her son’s widow Genevieve Sommer.

Last updated: 2:33pm, February 24 2014