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.

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