Obit of the Day: The Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor
When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Alice Herz-Sommer was considered one of the greatest pianists in Prague. To the Germans she was simply a Jew.
Four years after the invasion, having already lost the privilege of performing concerts or teaching non-Jews, Mrs. Herz-Sommer, her six-year-old son Rafael, and her husband Leopold Sommer were sent to a special concentration camp in Terezin (Theresienstadt), north of Prague.
Set up as a “model camp” for Red Cross workers to visit. Terezin was populated with Jewish artists and musicians. There Mrs. Herz-Sommer was given the opportunity to play her music, performing hundreds of times while imprisoned. It inspired not only her, but all the prisoners in the camp: “Music is magic…It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”
But Terezin was no safer than any other camp. Of the 144,000 Jews sent there only 17,000 survived the war. Leopold Sommer was one of 1000 men sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Just before he was shipped off, he made Alice swear not to follow him. The promise saved her life, because only days later the Nazis asked wives to follow their husbands - all those who volunteered were killed. Mr. Sommer survived Auschwitz but died of an illness in Dachau in 1945.
Mrs. Herz-Sommer and Rafael were liberated with others in 1945 by the Soviet Army. In 1947, the two moved to Palestine (later Israel) to live with Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s twin sister Marianne (or “Mizzi”) and their other sister Irma. For forty years, Mrs. Herz-Sommer played piano and taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory. In 1986 she moved to with Rafael, a cellist, and his family to London*. She would live there for the last 28 years of her life.
Born in 1903, more than a decade before World War I, when Czechoslovakia did not exist but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mrs. Herz-Sommer died on February 23, 2014 at the age of 110. She was the subject of the 2014 Academy Award-nominated short documentary, The Lady in 6: How Music Saved My Life. One of the film’s producers, Frederic Bohbot, was saddened that she died only one week before the Oscar ceremony: “We all came to believe that she would just never die…There was no question in my mind, ‘would she ever see the Oscars?’”
(Image of Alice Herz practicing piano at the German music academy at Prague in 1920 when she was 17 years old. She was the youngest student at the academy when she enrolled. Photo is copyright Droemer Verlag and courtesy of Suddeutsche.de)
* Rafael died at the age of 64 in 2001 after suffering a heart attack following a concert in Israel
Also of interest:
Edith Steiner-Kraus - Another survivor who was imprisoned at Terezin
And Obit of the Day’s Holocaust page for more inspirational stories