Alice Sommer-Herz: She was full of a special kind of laughter and joy

First person account

By Rodney Greenberg, February 27, 2014

Alice Sommer-herz was blessed with a captivating smile.

Even when recalling Terezin — the Czech concentration camp which the Nazis disguised as a haven for Jewish intellectuals so effectively that the Red Cross were fooled during their choreographed, one-day visit — she never fell into solemn soul-searching.

This twinkling, gregarious survivor of cruelty and deprivation was able to say she was “always laughing” during her two years in the camp’s bizarre mixture of artistic exuberance and constant threat of death.

It was a special kind of laughter, a joy she shared. “We were happy in Terezin, knowing we would play music in the evening. It saved our lives,” she said.

For an interview in this paper on her 100th birthday, Alice welcomed me to her flat in Belsize Park (now identified worldwide as Number 6 in the Oscar-nominated film).

She never lost faith in humanity. It was the source of her indomitable spirit

She spoke of how music sustained both her and her son Stefan, who took the name Raphael (“Raffi”) after they both settled in Israel. Her husband, Leopold, perished in Dachau only six weeks before its liberation. Her mother’s fate remains unknown. For Alice, a concert pianist, “practising the 24 Chopin Etudes was my way out of despair”.

I first met Raffi in 1973, when his mentor Paul Tortelier delegated him to choose young cellists for a BBC Tortelier Masterclass series.

I didn’t know he’d sung in the Terezin children’s opera Brundibar, its happy tunes only partially disguising the opera’s defiant message to the Nazi audience.

“When Raffi grew up”, Alice told me, “he couldn’t remember anything horrible in Terezin, only the music. I did not save him, he saved me.”

Alice worshipped Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler. They, too, had wrestled with fate. Four of those composers suffered the deaths of their infant children.

Alice’s lifespan was more than three times that of Mozart or Schubert, twice that of Beethoven.

She never lost faith in music nor in humanity. It gave her the gift to inspire goodness. It was the source of her indomitable spirit

Rodney Greenberg is a television music producer and author

Last updated: 1:12pm, February 27 2014