100 years of music and life, and counting

At 108, Alice Herz-Sommer appears to be intent on celebrating the fact that she is alive.

Alice Herz-Sommer (photo credit: Polly Hancock)
Alice Herz-Sommer
(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 century.
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 him.
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.”
A 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 something.”
STOESSINGER’S INTEREST in Herz-Sommer was sparked by something her mother told her about classical concerts that had taken place in a concentration camp.
“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 camp.”
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 up.”
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 war.”
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.
There 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 Chopin.
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 Words.”
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 time.”
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.