The oldest known Holocaust survivor died on Sunday in London at the age of 110. Alice Herz Sommer was an extraordinary woman whose music saved countless lives during her two years at the Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp in the northern part of what is now the Czech Republic.
As the oldest known Holocaust survivor, Alice’s story is one deserving to be told. A documentary encapsulating her life began showing just last week. Titled Lady in Number 6: How Music Saved My Life, the documentary was nominated for an Oscar in the category of best documentary. The short 40 minute story tries to give a glimpse into the life of a woman who used her amazing talent on the piano to give hope to her Jewish brothers and sisters during the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.
Born in 1903 Prague, Alice grew up in a home constantly surrounded by music, culture, and the arts. It was not uncommon for artists of all forms to stop by her family home and spend time there. Franz Kafka was a regular in the Herz family home. In an interview with Haaretz magazine, she recalled what Kafka was like. “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. He was an excellent writer, with a lovely style, the kind that you read effortlessly.”
But her joyful childhood was only a small step on her way to eventually being known as the oldest Holocaust survivor. Growing up during the World War I era, difficulty and sadness were an everyday part of life. Music was a kind of “magic” for her family that allowed them to soar above the depression that surrounded their lives. Enrolling in the German music academy in Prague at the age of 16, Alice became known throughout all of Europe for her talent on the piano. What she could not of known was how her music would become a symbol of hope for a people.
In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer, also a musician, and the two would have a son named Rafael in 1937. When the boy was two, the Nazis would invade Czechoslovakia, bringing the Holocaust to bear on her home country. Jews were no longer allowed to perform in public, teach non-Jewish students, or even leave their homes without permission. In 1942, the Nazis would murder her 72 year old mother.
Within a year after the death of her mother, Alice and her family were tossed into the Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp. Three times a year, the Red Cross would come and Alice would perform one of her concerts for the entire camp. “Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. 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.”
Her husband would not survive the Holocaust. Leopold was shipped to Auschwitz and would later die in Dachau. Alice and her son Rafael were liberated by Soviet forces and lived a long life. Rafael died in 2001 from a heart attack.
Alice was the oldest known Holocaust survivor at the time of her death on Sunday. But she was more than a survivor. She was someone who inspired others to live. Her words stand as a reminder to all of us of the power of hope.
“I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. 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.”