The keys to a long life

At 108, Alice Herz-Sommer still plays the piano every day at her London home.

dont reuse 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Ester Merom)
dont reuse 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Ester Merom)
Although she was 36 years old when World War II broke out, Alice Herz-Sommer is still alive, kicking and playing the piano at the grand old age of 108.
Her remarkable journey is the subject of the documentary From Hell to Paradise or: Chopin Saved Me, which will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque next Friday. The inferno referenced in the title is the Holocaust, part of which she spent, with her small son, at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
“I am 108 years old – 108 years old!” she exclaims when I call her at her north London apartment on a recent Friday morning. There is not even a hint of bragging in her statement; she sounds as if her longevity is a source of wonderment to herself.
She moved to England from Israel in 1986 at the behest of her son, who had settled there several years before. Today, she is the oldest living Holocaust survivor.
Herz-Sommer was born in 1903 in Prague, which was then still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She had four siblings, including a twin sister named Mariana who left Prague for Palestine, together with her husband and son, in 1939.
“Aliza [Herz-Sommer] had a son, Rafi, who was not even two years old when we left,” says Mariana’s 83- year-old son Haim Adler. “She and her husband believed that, somehow, everything would be all right in the end. Aliza and Mariana were very close, and it was very hard for them to say goodbye.”
Until then, Herz-Sommer had lived a rich and happy life. Her parents were part of the Jewish cultural elite in Prague, and as a young girl, she knew Franz Kafka. She started playing the piano at the age of five, studying with a pupil of Franz Liszt, and her natural talent soon emerged with all guns blazing. At 16 she became the youngest member of Prague’s prestigious German music academy. She performed concerts in Czechoslovakia and other countries across Europe, and taught piano to a growing number of students.
That all came to an abrupt end in March 1939, when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia. However, it was not the ensuing deprivation that she found most oppressive.
“Although we were poor, had nothing to eat, and the Nazis and their Czech collaborators took away all our belongings, for me the greatest punishment was having to wear the yellow star,” she said a few years ago.
“When I went out on the street, my best non-Jewish friends did not dare look at me.”
But she did have music, and that was what saved her life – on several occasions – and the lives of her son and husband, although, sadly, her husband died very near the end of the war. She and her son shared cramped quarters at Theresienstadt for two years. Her husband was also at the concentration camp, although in a different part, and they met every day for about an hour. Her son, Rafi, was blessed with a good voice, and he took part in the well-documented Brundibar children’s opera, which was performed many times in the camp.
“We scavenged for potato peelings as people starved to death around us,” she recalled several years ago. “People ask, ‘How could you make music?’ We were so weak, but music was special, like a spell. Music was my food.”
When she returned to Prague with her son, Herz- Sommer somehow managed to keep body and soul together, and even started teaching again, but in 1949 she made aliya.
“My mother and I visited Prague in 1947,” recalls Adler. “A cousin of my father’s had also survived the war, but she was a communist and decided to stay.”
Although Herz-Sommer was in favor of joining her twin sister in Palestine, it was a while before she made it over here.
“There were all sorts of logistics to overcome in Prague, and then there was the War of Independence,” explains Adler, “but things went pretty smoothly once she made it to Jerusalem.”
The Rubin Academy of Music and Dance soon took her on as a teacher, and over the next 37 years she passed on her experience and love of music to hundreds of students.
“It was wonderful to learn piano with her,” says 69- year-old Ester Merom, who studied with Herz-Sommer as a teenager, from 1958 to 1962. “She was so inspiring, and she wasn’t strict at all. She really cared for her students, and always helped to get the best out of them.”
After a separation of almost 40 years, Merom finally reunited with her former teacher last year at Herz- Sommer’s small ground-floor apartment in London’s leafy Belsize Park district.
“It was such a joy to meet up with her again,” says Merom. “She still has that sparkle in her eyes, and she lives modestly. She has a one-bedroom apartment and sits by a table with everything she needs on it.”
There is one other, crucially important – even life-saving – item in Herz-Sommer’s modest residence: her piano, which she still plays a couple of hours a day, dexterity problems notwithstanding.
“I only play with eight fingers now,” she says. “Two of my fingers don’t work anymore.”
That is said without any self-pity, just stated as a fact.
Somehow, she has retained an unswervingly sunshiny approach to life, regardless of the traumas and tragedies she has experienced. At the end of World War II she was told a member of her family had survived; it was a few days before she discovered that the survivor was not her husband, but her brother. Then, 11 years ago, her cellist son died at the age of only 65 at the end of a tour of Israel with his trio.
“He and the other two musicians had dinner with us after their last concert,” recalls Adler. “He died the next day after an artery in his head ruptured. It was very sad.”
Just over a year later, Herz-Sommer celebrated her 100th birthday with a gathering of relatives and friends, including her two grandsons.
“They see her every week, and one of them takes care of all her financial matters,” continues Adler. “Aliza has never taken any interest in money, or even buying clothes for herself.”
At the centenary event, she addressed the attendees in five languages, including Hebrew, but when I spoke to her in Hebrew last week, she said: “I know a little Hebrew. I am 108. At this time you forget everything, everything.”
But she has never forsaken her music, and has not lost her joie de vivre.
“I love meeting people,” she says – a good thing, since there is a constant stream of visitors to her apartment, including journalists and film crews. The first time I call her, she is busy with a German documentary film crew and has to call back later. Upon learning I once lived in London, she simply says: “Call me next time you are here.”
She was also the subject of a recently published book by Caroline Stoessinger, herself a classical pianist, called A Century of Wisdom, which contains some of the centenarian’s life stories and the lessons she has learned from them.
“I am an optimist,” declares Herz-Sommer. “I play the piano every day. The time passes quickly when you do something.”
From Hell to Paradise or: Chopin Saved Me will be screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 30 at 1 p.m. Tickets cost NIS 100 with proceeds going to the Alice Herz-Sommer scholarship, which will be awarded to an outstanding piano student at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. For more information: and (050) 688-6190.