Oldest Holocaust Survivor Turns 107

Nov 25th 2010 – 1:13PM
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Theunis Bates

Former concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer is living proof of the power of music. The world's oldest Holocaust survivor, who celebrates her 107th birthday Friday, endured the deprivations of the Prague ghetto, imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp and the murder of her husband, mother and countless other family members. Only her love of music, she says, sustained her throughout those years of darkness and heartbreak.

While her tale of survival is astonishing, what's perhaps more remarkable is that, despite seeing humanity at its worst, Sommer remains a fierce optimist and a believer in the fundamental goodness of mankind. "This is the reason I am so old, even now, I am sure," she recently told the U.K.'s Sunday Express. "I know about the bad things, but I look only for the good things. The world is wonderful, it's full of beauty and miracles, art and music."

Sommer was born in Prague in 1903 to a secular, German-speaking Jewish family. Her father ran a precision scales factory in the city -- which at this point was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- and her mother was a talented pianist who had been a childhood friend of Gustav Mahler. Sommer heard her first performance of the great composer's Second Symphony in Prague at the age of 8. "Still now when I listen to Mahler my mother is next to me," she told The Guardian in 2006.

At the turn of the century, Prague was a thriving melting pot of Czechs, Germans and Jews. And her family home served as a salon for the metropolis's greatest writers, scientists, musicians and actors to gather and debate. Franz Kafka -- the best friend of her elder sister's husband, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch -- was a regular visitor. "Kafka was a slightly strange man," Sommer told Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this year. "He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories."

Sommer began playing the piano at 5 and was soon taking lessons from Conrad Ansorge, a pupil of Franz Liszt. By 16, Sommer was giving lessons herself and touring as a pianist, performing pieces by Schumann, Bach, Beethoven and Smetana. (She still plays for up to three hours a day but complains that her fingers aren't as strong as they used to be.) In 1931, she fell in love with fellow musician Leopold Sommer, and the couple married two weeks later. Their only son, Raphael -- who would later become a famed concert cellist -- was born in June 1937.

Raphael wouldn't get to the chance to enjoy Prague's cultural delights, though. Hitler's forces marched into the city in March 1939. Soon after, Jewish musicians were banned from performing. For a short time, Sommer was able to make money by giving private piano lessons, but that soon became impossible when Jews were prohibited from teaching non-Jews. "Everything was forbidden," she told Haaretz. "We couldn't buy groceries, take the tram or go to the park."

Things would get far worse. In the summer of 1942 her mother, Sophie, was issued a deportation order. "She was 72 and ill," Sommer told The Times of London in 2008. "I went with her to the assembly point and stayed until the very last moment. To this day I do not know where she went. It was the lowest point in my life." Then one day an inner voice told her, "From now on you alone can help yourself. Not your husband, not the doctor, not the child," she told Haaretz. "And at that moment I knew I had to play Frederic Chopin's 24 etudes, which are the greatest challenge for any pianist. Like Goethe's 'Faust' or Shakespeare's 'Hamlet.' ... I practiced for hours and hours. Until they forced us out."

They were ordered to leave Prague in 1943. Sommer, her husband and Raphael -- then only 6 -- were herded on to a train and sent to Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp, in the north of what is now the Czech Republic. Bizarrely, this was a "show camp": The Nazis allowed the Jews to stage concerts and plays to convince Red Cross inspectors the inmates were cared for. At the same time, however, Terezin was being used as a staging post for tens of thousands of prisoners, who were ferried to die in other camps.

"Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy," she told Haaretz. "We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn't come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have."

Sommer was separated from her husband in September 1944. Leopold was sent to Auschwitz, and then to Dachau, where he died of illness shortly before the war's end. Raphael almost met the same fate. He took part in a performance of the children's opera Brundibar staged for Red Cross officials in 1944. Soon after the show, all the children -- except Raphael and one girl -- were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. "Of the 15,000 children in our camp," Sommer told the Times, "Raphael was one of only 130 to survive."

Soviet forces liberated Terezin in May 1945, and when Sommer arrived in Prague a few months later, she realized the true scale of Hitler's butchery. "Nobody else came back," she told the Sunday Express. "The whole family of my husband, several members of my family, all my friends, all the friends of my family, nobody came back. It was a hard time." With no reason to stay in Czechoslovakia, which was now a Communist regime, Sommer and her young son fled to Israel in 1949. She lived there for almost 40 years and made a living teaching music at a conservatory in Jerusalem.

In 1962, she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann -- the architect of the Holocaust -- in the city. "I have to say that I had pity for him," she told Haaretz. "I have pity for the entire German people. They are wonderful people, no worse than others. ... [What they did] was a terrible thing, but was Alexander the Great any better? Evil has always existed and always will. It is part of our life."

Twenty years ago, Sommer joined Raphael in London and still lives happily in the British capital. Her son suddenly died of a heart attack during a concert tour in 2001 at age 65. Despite this tragic loss, she is still able to find an unlikely cause for gratitude. "Raphael died without pain," she told The Guardian. "It is the greatest miracle and the greatest privilege in our life, to die without pain, so I am full of thankfulness."

As for her own long life, Sommer partly puts this down to diet -- she eats chicken stew most days, and doesn't touch coffee, tea or alcohol -- and to her strict piano-playing routine. But there is a more important factor. "In a word: optimism. I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed," she told Haaretz. "When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive."
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