Alice Sommer-Herz: death of oldest survivor

'She was the most remarkable person’

By Marcus Dysch, February 27, 2014
Alice Sommer-Herz believed tragedy had “enriched” her life (Photo: Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin)

Alice Sommer-Herz believed tragedy had “enriched” her life (Photo: Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin)

To some she was the “supercentenarian”, to others the “most optimistic person ever”. But to her grandchildren, Alice Sommer-Herz was simply “Giggi”.

Tributes have been paid to the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor following her death this week at the age of 110.

Ms Sommer-Herz was born in Prague in 1903 and survived the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin to become a renowned concert pianist in Israel.

After moving to London in 1986, she struck up friendships with fellow survivors as well as young people who were impressed by her sense of forgiveness and words of peace. She continued to live independently in Belsize Park, north London, after turning 100 and went swimming every day up to the age of 97.

In her later years, Ms Sommer-Herz said the tragedy of her younger years had “enriched” her life. “I have never hated, and I will never hate,” she said.

She loved us, laughed with us and cherished music with us. She was an inspiration

“There are three things in my life: the love from the mother to the child, which is the basis of everything; nature, which is so beautiful; and music. This is my religion.”

Following her death on Sunday, her grandson, Ariel Sommer, said: “Much has been written about her, but to those of us who knew her best, she was our dear Giggi.

“She loved us, laughed with us, and cherished music with us. She was an inspiration and our world will be significantly poorer without her by our side.”

Film-maker Christopher Nupen visited her every week for 30 years. He included her in his 2004 documentary, We Want the Light, and made a short portrait of her life in 2010 — Everything is a Present.

He said: “She was one of the most remarkable people this world has ever seen. Quite literally one of the most generous, kind, deep-seeing, intelligent, enthusiastic and tolerant people. She hated nobody.

“I made the films because I wanted people to know about her and the films will keep her memory alive.”

Among those remembering her was teenager Uri Shine. He first met Ms Sommer-Herz last year as part of a volunteering programme run by the charity GIFT to coincide with his barmitzvah.

The schoolboy began visiting the centenarian to play the piano for her, and she in turn offered him advice from her years of music experience. Uri said he was “thrilled” to have had a “meaningful and reciprocal” way to engage with her.

She had told him that the secret to long life was to be “always happy and laughing, even through the most difficult and oppressive situations”.

Rabbi Naftali Schiff, director of heritage organisation JRoots, regularly visited Ms Sommer-Herz. He said: “The most wonderful thing about Alice was that she was so positive.

“The contrast between the darkness of the Holocaust and the brightness of her personality made her so special. ”

A documentary about Ms Sommer-Herz’s life — The Lady At Number 6 — has been nominated for an Oscar at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

Last updated: 1:03pm, February 27 2014