(photo credit: Polly Hancock)
There are book names that barely allude to the content inside the dust jacket,
leaving the reader to gradually fathom the author’s titular intent. Caroline
Stoessinger’s biography of Alice Herz-Sommer is not one of these. The book is
called Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living
Holocaust Survivor, and subtitled A Century of Wisdom. And that’s exactly what
you get from the compact 233-page hardback tome, as well as some illuminating
historical background featuring some of the major players of the 20th
In recent years, Herz-Sommer has become something of a viral, if
not a media, star. There are several clips of her on YouTube, and hardly a month
goes by without some documentary film crew knocking at the door of her modest
apartment in London’s Belsize Park neighborhood. A couple of months ago the
Jerusalem Cinematheque hosted a screening of a documentary about Herz-Sommer,
called From Hell to Paradise or: Chopin Saved Me. The event was held as a
fund-raiser, designed to obtain the wherewithal to set up a Rubin Academy music
student’s grant in her name.
Herz-Sommer is a walking (with a certain
degree of difficulty), piano-playing (daily), breathing and definitively living
phenomenon. Now all of 108 years old, she was witness to the whole of the 20th
century and met and befriended some of Europe’s most famous men of letters, such
as Franz Kafka, musicians and even Sigmund Freud. She survived the rigors of the
Theresienstadt concentration camp, along with her infant son, largely due to her
skills at the piano keyboard, but lost her husband at the end of World War II.
Her son, Rafi, eventually became an acclaimed London- based classical cellist,
and Herz- Sommer relocated to the UK from Israel around 25 years ago to be near
Sadly, Rafi died suddenly at the age of just 65, after completing a
highly successful concert tour of Israel with a trio.
But the centenarian
maintains that the horrors and sadness of part of her past mean nothing to her.
As Stoessinger points out in the biography, Herz-Sommer appears to be intent on
celebrating the fact that she is alive.
That, adds the biographer, and
Herz- Sommer’s high intelligence, hard-won wisdom and amazing life experience is
sometimes lost on her many visitors.
“Journalists from all over the world
come to see Alice and they treat her as some sort of freak show – she’s old, she
still plays piano a little bit and she was in a concentration camp. It’s like
the bearded lady in a circus. They will ask her stupid questions and she’ll
answer without taking them too seriously. But if you ask her about the things
that are important to her, like music, and you let her know you have some idea
of where she came from, she will tell you lots of interesting things.”
concert pianist herself, Stoessinger’s familial roots include German and Czech
antecedents. “Music is the most important bond between us,” says the American
author. “She’ll demonstrate something on the piano, and then I’ll demonstrate
STOESSINGER’S INTEREST in Herz-Sommer was sparked by
something her mother told her about classical concerts that had taken place in a
“I don’t know how my mother knew, and I already had
an interest in music from the time of the Holocaust,” says the biographer. “I
didn’t see how it could be possible to play music in a concentration
She was able to take her research in the field to the next level
only after the fall of the Iron Curtain. “When [Vaclav] Havel [who wrote the
foreword of the biography] became president of Czechoslovakia I could go to Prague and to Terezin and look things
There were also some more immediate sources of information around
back then. “There were survivors of Theresienstadt living in Prague at the
time,” Stoessinger continues. “The most important one, who particularly led me
to Alice, was [opera singer] Karel Berman. He was in Theresienstadt and he also
survived Auschwitz, and he told me that, while he stayed on in Czechoslovakia,
Herz-Sommer made the decision of her life to move to Israel after the
Amazingly, that was in 1949, when there were already strict
Communist regime constraints on Czechs leaving the country. Herz-Sommer soon
took up a position at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem and, for
over three decades, taught hundreds of students and hosted regular musical
soirees in her Jerusalem apartment. In the book, Stoessinger talks about former
prime minister Golda Meir attending some of Herz-Sommer’s performances and the
close relationship that developed between the two women.
One of the most
charming features of A Century of Wisdom is the way it paints a captivating
picture of Herz-Sommer’s early, mostly carefree life in Prague – her family life
and her cultural exploits – and delicately weaves a number of celebrated
Europeans of the era into the fabric of the smoothly flowing story.
are delightful vignettes dotted through the 200-plus pages, including one about
Meir joining Herz-Sommer in a potato-peeling session. There is also a portrayal
of Seder night at Herz-Sommer’s childhood home and, after the Seder, of the
eightyear- old entertaining the men, who had retired to enjoy a postprandial
cigar and brandy, with a short rendition of piano works by Beethoven and
Herz-Sommer makes no bones about the importance of music in her
life. “Music is God, Beethoven is God,” she extols on one of Stoessinger’s many
visits to London, which began in 2003, and there is a neat list of some of
Herz-Sommer’s pearls of wisdom at the end of the book, entitled “In Alice’s
Insights such as “gratitude is essential for happiness” and “only
when we are old do we realize the beauty of life” may serve to the lift the
spirits of many a reader.
True to her indomitable spirit, Herz-Sommer
continues to remain as active as possible, walking the length of the corridor
outside her apartment and playing the piano daily, despite having lost the use
of one finger on each hand. “I play with eight fingers,” says Herz-Sommer
without a hint of self-pity.
Stoessinger says that the survivor made some
recordings in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, but the tapes have gone missing.
“People are trying to find them in Jerusalem,” she says, “but nothing has come
up yet. It would be incredible to hear how she played all those years ago. I
hope they turn up sometime.”
Stoessinger has made regular visits to
Herz-Sommer’s home over the last five years and says she has gained much from
knowing the centenarian. “I owe her my life,” the author declares unequivocally.
“My daughter developed a rare type of stomach cancer, and I don’t think I would
have survived this past year without gaining strength from Alice.” Stoessinger
plans to see her old friend later this year. “She will celebrate her 109th
birthday on November 26,” says Stoessinger. “I am sure it will be a happy
A Century of Wisdom has been well-received thus far, and last
month Stoessinger received the 2012 Normal Mailer Commendation for Preserving
the History of Our Time, with the New York ceremony attended by celebrated
violinist Itzhak Perlman and actress Ellen Burstyn. The front of the book also
sports a warm recommendation by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Lessons from the
Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor is a
comfortable and inspiring read.