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Tributes to oldest Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer as film awaits Oscar recognition

Alice Herz-Sommer. Picture: Polly Hancock. Alice Herz-Sommer. Picture: Polly Hancock.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014
6:00 PM

“In the middle of hell, my mother created a Garden of Eden for me.”

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Alice Herz-Sommer performed in numerous concerts at Theresienstadt concentration camp. Picture: Marion Davies.Alice Herz-Sommer performed in numerous concerts at Theresienstadt concentration camp. Picture: Marion Davies.

These are the words of late concert cellist Stephan Sommer who spent two years as a child pressed against his mother on a filthy mattress in a Nazi concentration camp.

Mr Sommer died of a heart attack in 2001, aged 64, and on Sunday his 110-year-old mother Alice Herz-Sommer passed away as the world’s oldest known Holocaust survivor.

Ms Herz-Sommer, who lived in Belsize Grove, Belsize Park, for the last 27 years of her life, spent two years with her young son in Theresienstadt concentration camp in the city of Terezin, located in what is now the Czech Republic, during the Second World War.

During her time in captivity, Ms Herz-Sommer, known affectionately to her family as Gigi, lost her mother, husband and other family members to the Nazi death camps.

As an accomplished pianist, she managed to avoid deportation with her son to Auschwitz through her performances in numerous concerts during her time in Theresienstadt.

Survivors who witnessed the concerts recounted how the beauty of Ms Herz-Sommer’s playing transported them away from the horrors of their daily life and offered them hope.

In 2007, a book inspired by Mr Sommer’s words, A Garden of Eden in Hell, recounting Ms Herz-Sommer’s extraordinary life story was published.

Following its launch, Ms Herz-Sommer told the Ham&High: “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.”

Primrose Hill resident Judith Konrad, 85, who spent four months in Austria’s Lichtenworth concentration camp, never met Ms Herz-Sommer but knew of her story as a fellow Holocaust survivor.

“She was a great survivor,” said Mrs Konrad. “I believe she was working until the last minute of her life, playing the piano.

“I was just thinking there must be very few of us left. We have to talk about it, we have to tell the future generations all about it and it must not be forgotten.”

Ms Herz-Sommer arrived in Theresienstadt camp with her husband Leopold Sommer and their five-year-old son Stephan in 1943 before Leopold was moved onto Auschwitz and finally Dachau where he died from typhus in 1944.

An Orthodox Jewish man who shared a bunk with Leopold in his final hours later visited Ms Herz-Sommer, who had shielded Stephan from the horrors of Theresienstadt for two years before being liberated by the Russians in 1945.

The purpose of the man’s visit was to return the tin spoon Leopold used to feed himself throughout his time in the Nazis’ camps – the only remaining evidence of his final years.

In 1949, Ms Herz-Sommer left her native Prague for the final time to settle with family in Israel.

She moved to Belsize Park in 1986 to be near Stephan, by then a famous cellist with two sons. She swam every day until she was 97.

And in a poignant turn of events, exactly a week after her death, Ms Herz-Sommer and her story could be in line for an Oscar.

The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life, a 38-minute documentary film about her life, is up for best short documentary at the Academy Awards to be handed out on Sunday.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “With the passing of Alice Herz-Sommer, we are once again reminded that Holocaust survivors will not be with us forever.

“We must all take on the responsibility to ensure that the horrors they endured are never forgotten.”

Ms Herz-Sommer’s grandson Ariel Sommer said: “Much has been written about her, but to those of us who knew her best, she was our dear Gigi. She loved us, laughed with us and cherished music with us.

“She was an inspiration and our world will be poorer without her by our side.”

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