Friday, December 09, 2011

The amazing life of Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice Herz-Sommer was one of five children born to a Jewish family in Prague.

She started playing piano at something like five years old. By the time she was in her teens, she was recognised as an immensely talented pianist.

In 1931, she met her husband, also a musician. They married two weeks later. In her 30s, she was known as a concert pianist throughout Europe.

In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and life for Jews became a nightmare. In 1943 she, her husband and son were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, a "show camp" where artists, writers and musicians among the inmates were forced to perform for Red Cross inspections.

They lived on a little black coffee and a little watery soup. Mrs Herz-Sommer gave more than a hundred concerts for ill and starving inmates. "Music kept us alive," she says. "This was their food."

Her husband was sent to Auschwitz, then Dachau, where he died of typhus. Mrs Herz-Sommer and her son survived the war. Of 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt, her son was one of only 130 who lived.

In 1949 she went to Israel and taught music. "It was a beautiful life in Israel," she says. "Inspiring. Musicians, scientists, writers - they all came and lectured. I was very happy."

Some 25 years ago, she and her son moved to London. "English people are so polite," she says. "They are cheerful and helpful and I admire their humour. Admirable people. I love them." Her son died in 2001, aged 65.

She attributes her long life to her optimism. "That is the reason I am still alive. I look at the good. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive." And despite her suffering, she has never hated. "Never."

"Life is beautiful, extremely beautiful," she says. "When you are old, you appreciate it more. When you are older, you think, you remember. You care and you appreciate, you are thankful for everything. For everything."

Mrs Herz-Sommer still practises piano for several hours each day.

She recently celebrated her 108th birthday. She is the oldest known Holocaust survivor. We wish her well.