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Alice Herz-Sommer, 1903-2014: ‘Whatever you do, wherever you are, if you have music, you have beauty’

Alice Herz-Sommer. Picture: Marion Davies. Alice Herz-Sommer. Picture: Marion Davies.

Monday, February 24, 2014
6:55 PM

In 2007, Ham&High features editor Bridget Galton spoke to Alice Herz-Sommer after the publication of A Garden of Eden in Hell, a book exploring her extraordinary life as a Holocaust survivor. Following her death yesterday, aged 110, the Ham&High has re-published the moving interview with Ms Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest known Holocaust survivor.

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MUSIC saved Alice Herz-Sommer’s sanity, her life, and the life of her adored son.

When her beloved mother Sofie was deported to Theresienstadt, the pianist mastered Chopin’s fiendishly difficult etudes to distract her from overwhelming grief.

And the concerts she gave for two years in the concentration camp meant her name was never placed on the dreaded list for deportation to Auschwitz.

Survivors who heard her performances in the Czech camp never forgot how the beauty of her playing transported them away from the horrors of their daily life and offered them hope.

Alice, now 103, who still plays piano every day, says: “Only through the music was I saved. Neither illness nor death takes us to paradise, it is only music.”

Her remarkable story of survival, without hatred, has finally been set down by authors Reinhard Piechocki and Melissa Muller following hours of interviews with Alice at her Belsize Grove home.

A Garden of Eden in Hell is also a moving testament to the unshakeable bond between Alice and her son Stephan.

For two years he slept, pressed against her on a filthy mattress in Theresienstadt. For two years, she struggled to protect him from the barbarism, death and hunger around them.

“I came to the camp with my husband and son, five-years-old. I was a mother in a concentration camp with a child who is starting to think and ask questions. Why are we here? Why don’t we get to eat something? What are Jews? What is War? Who is Hitler? It’s very difficult to answer a child. I was concerned not to awake in him a hatred.

“My husband was sent away. It is a terrible shock for a child to lose a father. This was my challenge to bring him up without hatred because hatred brings only hatred. This is the main thing in my life. I believe I have succeeded”

Stephan, who adopted the name Raphael when they moved to Israel after the war wrote movingly before his death of how Alice’s love encircled him throughout his childhood.

“In the middle of hell, my mother created a Garden of Eden for me. She built a strong wall around me out of love and gave me such security that I could not find anything extraordinary in our lives. In retrospect I can say with good conscience that my childhood was wonderfully happy. I lived under the protecting veil of my mother and so cannot describe the darker side of our lives in the concentration camp. Not once did she allow me to see the humiliations and insults she had to suffer. That this was possible behind the wire of a National Socialist concentration camp must in all truth be called a miracle.”

Alice says in turn Stephan’s presence saved her from despair. “The music and the child kept me sane. He was living two years on a mattress with me. A child feeds a mother and she gives him security so he knows nothing can happen while the mother is so close to him. So it was for us.”

Around 15,000 children were sent to Theresienstadt, just 130 remained upon liberation. Stephan had sung in Hans Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar, part of a packed programme of cultural events organised by the many talented Jewish musicians and performers who had been deported there from Prague and other Czech cities.

In 1943, a performance of Brundibar was used by the SS authorities to hoodwink Red Cross officials that the camp was a model Jewish settlement with humane conditions.

They made the same mistake as Alice had upon hearing of the musical programmes. “If they can organise concerts there it’ can’t be such a terrible place,” she had said to husband Leopold as they queued for lengthy bureaucratic processing before boarding the train to Theresienstadt.

Born into a wealthy family of German speaking, non religious Jews, Alice enjoyed a happy childhood in Prague with her four siblings. Full of music and friends, she attended concerts, swam in the Moldau with family friend Franz Kafka and attended the German Academy for Music and Drama from the age of 17.

“I was brought up in a very musical family,” says Alice.

“My mother as a child played with Gustav Mahler, they were born in the same place. I remember when my twin sister and I were 10 years old she took us to the first performance of Mahler’s second symphony in Prague. Still now listening to Mahler’s music, my mother is in my heart.

“I started learning piano aged five, my elder sister taught me. My younger brother was an excellent violinist and every evening my mother sat next to the stove and heard us play, sonatas, concertos, whatever we had learned. This was my best school.”

From 1923 until the German occupation, Alice enjoyed a successful career as a concert pianist in Prague, she met and married Leopold Sommer, but in March, 1939 the German army occupied the city.

Many members of Alice’s family fled to safety in Palestine but she couldn’t bear to leave her mother. In July 1942, Sofie was deported to Theresienstadt and from there to Treblinka.

“I was in despair,” says Alice. “Not the husband, not the sweet child could help. An inner voice told me you can help yourself with Chopin’s 24 etudes. This is the most difficult thing ever written for the piano. No-one wrote more difficult things than these extremely beautiful compositions, sitting and playing for hours and hours and hours helped me. There are people who remember still how I played them in the concentration camp.

“When Reinhard, the writer of this book heard there was a woman who played them in the camp he contacted me and telephoned me every evening for an hour to ask thousands of questions. I think he knows more about my life than I do and I feel I have lived twice, once in reality and once through this book.

“Of course some things I have forgotten but the main things I remember very well.

It was not too upsetting because the many people missing in my life are living through this book - my beloved son, my family, mother, father, brothers and sisters.”

Alice returned to Prague after liberation where she discovered Leopold had died of fever in Dachau.

Stephan’s musical talents started to flourish as he learned piano and cello, but after four years, Communist rule and prejudice against German-speaking Jews drove her to join her surviving family in Israel.

“When we came back to Prague from Theresienstadt after six or seven months the Communists came,” says Alice.

“Here living in a Monarchy we have no idea what it means to live under Stalin. Quite, quite terrible.

“Hitler, Stalin, Israel - not a day without a political tension. But here in this Monarchy there is freedom for everyone to speak whatever they want. We take it for granted but this is a great happiness to live in freedom.”

After 37 years in Israel, Alice moved to Belsize Park at the age of 83, to be near Stephan, by then a famous cellist with two sons.

She swam every day until she was 97 and made hundreds of new friends.

“This is the basis of being happy in life,” she says. “Friendship, not sex, sex is something physical but has nothing to do with your soul.”

She adds; “I was lucky to be born with a very extraordinary temperament. I am optimistic. I know everything is half good and half bad, me as well, I know about the best things I look at the good things. Everywhere is good and bad.”

Five years after his death, she still thinks of Stephan every day.

“Lucky me, he was born with an extraordinary musicality I soon knew he had perfect pitch. Five years ago he was visiting Israel for a concert tour and the day after the last concert, he came back and didn’t feel well. His wife took him to hospital. It was a heart attack. They have him anaesthesia and he didn’t wake up.”

Despite experiencing more tragedy in her life than most, Alice remains grateful - for two things.

“First of all, to be a musician is a privilege. We are much richer than other people. Whatever you do, wherever you are, if you have music, you have beauty.”

Secondly she is grateful that Stephan died at the age of 64, without knowing what it means to be old.

“The highlight of my life was the birth of my son. Our relationship was extraordinary and he died without suffering. To die without suffering is the greatest privilege in the world.”

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