Alice Herz-Sommer was born in the city of Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic, on November 26, 1903. That means that she will be 110 years old in a little over seven months. She is an accomplished concert pianist, a professor of music, a wife, a mother, and a Holocaust survivor.
“As a witness to the twentieth century, Alice has lived through…extraordinary cultural and scientific accomplishments…; she experienced the highest rewards civilization has to offer-the power of music, literature, art, technological innovation, science, and philosophy to bring out the best in our humanity-and she survived the greatest degradation of the human spirit the Western world has known. And yet, in immersing herself in art while remaining closely connected to the world around her, to her music, and to what Kafka called that something indestructible’ deep within her being, Alice has found lasting happiness-which for all of us may be the ultimate source of eternal youth.”
“Optimists always see the best; they spread happiness.”
By Melissa Muller and Reinhard Piechocki
Alice’s Piano is a straightforward, chronological biography of Alice Herz-Sommer’s amazing life. It was originally published in German as Ein Garten Eden immitten der Holle or A Garden of Eden in the Middle of Hell, which perfectly describes what she created, along with the other Jewish musicians who were imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. They produced operas, choir performances, orchestras, chamber concerts, all on the most ramshackle of instruments, often from scores reproduced from memory. They refused to give up their humanity in the face of the great inhumanity that surrounded them.
Alice loved music from a young age and showed great promise as a pianist, performing with the Czech Philharmonic at the age of 20 and winning numerous competitions and accolades. Music pervaded every part of her, body and soul, and she loved it deeply. When her piano teacher suggested that she didn’t need to practice for four hours every day because “an hour or two would be quite enough to make progress with your talent,” she replied, “But it gives me so much pleasure…There is nothing lovelier than learning a new piece.”
That love of music sustained her in the concentration camp. She performed more than 100 concerts entirely from memory during the almost two years she was at Theresienstadt, and rotated through several programs that included challenging pieces by Beethoven, Schumann, and Smetana. A highlight of the book was the detailed description of her performances of Chopin’s twenty-four Etudes. Each Etude itself was described, as well as Alice’s performance, often in the words of other survivors who were present or through reviews written at the time. And each Etude was also matched with the story of a friend or compatriot of Alice’s in the concentration camp, some of whom survived and many of whom did not. These brief sketches of just a few of the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust provide a poignant reminder that these were unique individuals, not faceless numbers.
Alice and her son Stephan were liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945. Alice’s husband, Leopold, had been transported to Auschwitz after about a year in Theresienstadt, and then later to Flossenburg and Dachau, where he died. Alice tried to recreate a life for herself and her son in Prague, but found it unwelcoming and inhospitable to Jews after the war, so she emigrated to the newly formed country of Israel, where she spent 25 years as a professor of music at the Jerusalem Conservatory. Finally, in 1986, she moved to London to be closer to her son, now a celebrated concert cellist. Though he passed away in 2001, she continues to live there today.
There are a few awkward phrasings in Alice’s Piano, not uncommon in a translation, but that does not diminish the beauty or power of Alice’s story. It’s truly affecting to read of this woman’s inspiring strength and optimism.
“Music was our way of remembering our inner selves, our values.”
In contrast to Alice’s Piano, A Century of Wisdom is not chronological. Rather, it is a stirring collection of the lessons Professor Herz-Sommer has learned over her hundred-plus years on earth. It is astounding to me to read of her triumphs over her struggles, but even more so to read of her unfailing optimism and cheerful attitude. It’s also a testament to the resilience and power of the human will.
Since I can’t improve upon them, here are her own words:
“I love people. All kinds of people. I love to talk with people…I don’t look at people as a group to be judged. Behind every man and woman is a story. I am interested in learning about the best in each individual.”
“I was not spared to spend my days looking back, to make myself and others miserable.”
Speaking of her husband, Leopold, who died at Dachau: “He was a learned man. An extraordinary fine character. I respected him. I learned from him. He respected me…who I was and what music meant to me. Mutual respect is the foundation of a happy marriage.”
“We all see only what we want to see.”
Quoting Adolf Eichmann at his war crimes trial, which she attended: “I realize that a life predicated on being obedient and taking orders is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one’s need to think.”
“There is a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.”
“Tears had no place in a concentration camp. Laughter was our only medicine.”
“Generosity above all.”
“Be kind. Kindness is free. It costs you nothing, and the rewards are great for everyone.”
“Every day is a miracle. No matter how bad my circumstances, I have the freedom to choose my attitude to life, even to find joy. Evil is not new. It is up to us how we deal with both good and bad. No one can take this power away from us.”
Excellent lessons for us all. Thank you, Alice.
On My Bedside Table…
Just finished: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Now reading: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
On deck: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
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