How Alice Herz-Sommer, the Oldest Holocaust Survivor, Survived the Horrific Ordeal with Music

What you’re watch­ing is the trail­er for the doc­u­men­tary Alice Danc­ing Under the Gal­lows by Nick Reed, to be released lat­er this year. At 110, Alice Herz-Som­mer is the old­est Holo­caust sur­vivor. Her sto­ry is both touch­ing and inspir­ing.

Alice was born in Prague — then part of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire — in 1903. She start­ed play­ing the piano as a child and took lessons with Con­rad Ansorge, a stu­dent of Liszt. At 16, she attend­ed the mas­ter class at Prague’s pres­ti­gious Ger­man musi­cal acad­e­my. Lat­er, Alice became a respect­ed con­cert pianist in Prague. Through her fam­i­ly, she also knew Franz Kaf­ka. All of this changed when the Nazis occu­pied Czecho­slo­va­kia in March 1939. Along with oth­er Jews liv­ing in Prague, Alice was ini­tial­ly forced to live in Prague’s ghet­to before being deport­ed to the There­sien­stadt con­cen­tra­tion camp in 1943, along with her five-year-old son Raphael. Even­tu­al­ly her whole fam­i­ly, includ­ing her hus­band, cel­list Leopold Som­mer, and her moth­er, were sent to Auschwitz, Tre­blin­ka and Dachau, where they were killed.

Alice and her son sur­vived There­sien­stadt because the Nazis used this par­tic­u­lar con­cen­tra­tion camp to show the world how “well” the inmates were treat­ed. A pro­pa­gan­da film by the Nazis was shot and a del­e­ga­tion from the Dan­ish and Inter­na­tion­al Red Cross was shown around in 1943. To boost morale, Alice and many oth­er impris­oned musi­cians reg­u­lar­ly per­formed for the inmates. Despite the unimag­in­able liv­ing con­di­tions, Alice and her son sur­vived. They moved to Israel after the war, where she taught music. In 1986, she moved to Lon­don, where she still lives. Her son died in 2001 (obit­u­ary here).

The way Alice dealt with those hor­ri­ble times is par­tic­u­lar­ly inspir­ing. She says about the role of music: “I felt that this is the only thing which helps me to have hope … it’s a sort of reli­gion actu­al­ly. Music is … is God. In dif­fi­cult times you feel it, espe­cial­ly when you are suf­fer­ing.” When asked by Ger­man jour­nal­ists if she hat­ed Ger­mans, she replied: “I nev­er hate, and I will nev­er hate. Hatred brings only hatred.”

Extra mate­r­i­al: Art Ther­a­py Blog has a tran­script of the trail­er, mem­o­rable quotes by Alice and two BBC Radio inter­views with her. Alice’s life sto­ry is told in the book A Gar­den of Eden in Hell.

By pro­fes­sion, Matthias Rasch­er teach­es Eng­lish and His­to­ry at a High School in north­ern Bavaria, Ger­many. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twit­ter.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.