Alice Herz-Sommer, the Oldest Holocaust Survivor (Thanks to the Power of Music), Dies at 110

On Sun­day, 23 Feb­ru­ary 2014, Alice Herz-Som­mer, thought to be the old­est Holo­caust sur­vivor, died in Lon­don. She has been an inspi­ra­tion to many peo­ple as the sto­ry of her life is shown in the Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed doc­u­men­tary called “The Lady in Num­ber 6″ (the video above is the offi­cial trail­er).

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, was 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. 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:

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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