As might be expected Alice is rather unique. Living entirely alone in a tiny flat in central London she spends hours each day at her piano, practicing beloved Bach and Beethoven, for she was once a renowned and celebrated concert pianist performing to enthusiastic audiences throughout central Europe. But of course, all of that was before… before the ‘lights went out all over Europe’ and the continent was plunged into years of misery and bitter conflict.
During those years Alice suffered experiences that no human being should have to endure. She saw both her mother and her husband put aboard the transports to Auschwitz and yet today she speaks of those times with an absence of malice and quiet grace that wins the hearts of all who know her. Along with her six-year-old son, Raphael, Alice was imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp where her most enduring memories are of her helplessness and inability to feed her child or to answer his many questions about why they and so many others were being subjected to the indescribable nightmare of the Holocaust.
Yet Alice found a way to survive the terror of the camps – a means to look beyond the horrors of day-to-day life in order to recall and cherish what was joyful, pure and noble about her fellow man. Alice survived through music…
Still today, she speaks with great pride and passion of playing more than 100 concerts inside the concentration camp and she likens that experience, both for the performers and their imprisoned audience as being close to the divine. Alice is unequivocal in stating that music preserved her sanity and her life – while bringing hope into the lives of countless others. To this day Alice never tires of saying; “Music saved my life and Music saves me still.”
When she plays Schubert and Beethoven, it’s in a style that the world has long since forgotten. It’s the style of her mentor and teacher; the majestic Artur Schnabel: a style redolent of a happier and more confident time in music-making and one which today many may find heartbreakingly nostalgic.
Yet despite all that has befallen her, Alice insists that she has never, ever hated the Nazis, and she never will. Some see in her tolerance and compassion a secular saint who has been blessed with the gift of forgiveness, but Alice is far more pragmatic – she has seen enough in her life to know all too well that hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated. Alice laughs easily and still becomes flirtatious in the presence of young men. With her remarkable memory she’s able to keep her busy schedule in her head without a diary or the assistance of a secretary. She makes her own appointments, does her own cooking and shopping, takes two long daily walks and frequently talks with journalists, students, musicians and just about anyone else who understands and loves music.
And it’s from music that Alice derives her supreme optimism. As she’s so fond of saying; “I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times – including my husband, my mother and my beloved son. Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.”
BRIEF BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS:
Born in Prague in 1903 Alice grew up in a cultured and loving family which was part of the German-speaking Czech-Jewish assimilated society. Her mother had been a playmate of Gustav Mahler and as a child Alice frequently played with Franz Kafka who came to her home for Sunday lunch. As a young woman Alice would attend Kafka’s funeral almost two decades later. Her familiar, secure world of writers, composers and artists was destroyed by the Holocaust. As a child Alice grew up in a world that revered art, artists and great literature. It was a world where a concert, opera or book review made front page news in major newspapers.
Alice Herz-Sommer was living in Prague when she received her deportation summons from the Nazis. Her mother and husband had already been transported to Auschwitz by the time she and her five year old son were rounded up and sent to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.
Until the occupation of Czechoslovakia Alice had enjoyed a successful concert career in central Europe. Frequently she had been the featured piano soloist with the Czech Philharmonic and had completed a number of commercial recordings before her arrest. No surprise then that she and her son, Raffi, continued to let music sustain them whilst suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Alice played the piano at every opportunity and Raffi became the youngest cast member of the famous childrens’ opera; Brundibar frequently singing the solo role of the ‘Bird’. (We can still see a fragment of his performance in footage from Kurt Gerron’s infamous 1944 propaganda film ‘The Fuehrer Builds a City for the Jews.’
Alice was raised with an emphasis on Jewish cultural and ethical values rather than religious dogma. Today she loves to say “I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”
Alice’s mother and husband passed through Terezin on their way to Auschwitz where they were gassed. As well as performing in more than 100 concerts in the camp Alice devoted herself to the physical and emotional protection of her son. As an adult Raffi had remarkably few dark memories of ‘Terezin’, saying that his mother somehow managed to protect him from the worst realities of life at the mercy of the Nazis. He once wrote that Alice managed to create a Garden of Eden for him in the midst of that hell.
Alice and her son returned to Prague after being liberated by the Soviet Army in May of 1945. She found no one and nothing of her past. Strangers lived in her apartment – which had been confiscated by the Nazis. Already 45 years old, she made the decision to immigrate to Israel where she hoped to find other Survivors. In the “promised land” she built a new life and supported herself and her son by teaching at the Music Academy. She did find other Czech immigrants – friends and relatives – including Max Brod who had been Kafka’s close friend and biographer. The greats of Israel; Ben Gurion & Abba Eban visited Alice and listened to her play though she never revived her international career. Raffi flourished and showed serious promise as a cellist. When he won an audition and scholarship to the Paris Conservatory Alice learned French so that she could stay in touch with him through letters. Suddenly alone again – Alice persevered.
After becoming a successful cellist, Raffi settled in England where he married and had two sons. Shortly before her 100th birthday Alice decided to retire from teaching and to emigrate once more, this time to England to be near Raffi and her grandchildren. But disaster struck shortly after she moved to London when Raffi died suddenly in Israel while on a concert tour with the Solomon Trio. Grief-stricken, Alice was hospitalized for weeks before she gradually began to recover from the shock and sadness. Then, around the time that she turned 100 Alice took up the study of philosophy to bolster her indestructible spirit, to try and make sense of everything that had befallen her, and to keep her insatiably curious mind alive.
To this day Alice Herz-Sommer still plays the piano, loves to meet people, talk with her few remaining friends. Alice says, “I am no longer myself. The body cannot resist as it did in the past. I think I am in my last days but it doesn’t really matter because I have had such a beautiful life. And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love.”