Alice Herz-Sommer dies at 110; thought to be oldest Holocaust survivor

When Alice Herz-Sommer played the piano at Theresienstadt her audience was enthralled.
As she approached the end of Chopin’s difficult Revolutionary Etude, the piece’s mounting musical turbulence exploded.
“Alice’s hands slid furiously over the keys, zig-zagging up and down from the heights to the lowest registers, with the final four chords ringing out, like so many shrieks of despair,” biographers Melissa Muller and Reinhard Piechocki wrote in 2006.
The next day, she was given an extra ladle of watery soup — a privilege at a Nazi concentration camp, but one that made the pianist distinctly uncomfortable.
Herz-Sommer, who was widely thought to be the oldest survivor of the Holocaust and is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, died Sunday at a London hospital, her daughter-in-law Genevieve Sommer told the Associated Press. She was 110.
An accomplished classical musician before World War II, she and her young son Raphael endured Theresienstadt, a camp the Germans cynically used to show the world how well they treated the Jews.
Though prisoner concerts and a children’s opera were filmed for Nazi propaganda purposes, about 90,000 of the 140,000 Jews transported to the camp were later sent to near-certain death in Auschwitz and elsewhere, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. About 33,000 died in Theresienstadt.
Relentlessly positive despite everything, Herz-Sommer is the subject of “The Lady in Number 6,” a 38-minute documentary in contention for an Academy Award.
“When we showed her some early footage of the film, she just smiled,” producer Nick Reed said Sunday. “For her, the Oscar nomination is all very lovely, but it’s more about how we all live our lives.”
With arthritic hands, Herz-Sommer practiced piano in her tiny North London flat two or three hours daily almost until her death.
She discussed music with love and animation but spoke reluctantly about the horrors of the Holocaust. She seldom expressed bitterness.
“These concerts, the people are sitting there, old people, desolated and ill, and they came to the concerts and this music was for them our food,” she recalled. “Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive.”
When her 72-year-old mother was torn from Prague and sent to a concentration camp in 1942, the distraught Herz-Sommer heeded an inner command.
“Practice the Chopin Etudes,” a voice told her as her mother was carted away. “They will save you.”
Born in Prague on Nov. 26,1903, Herz-Sommer grew up in comfort. Franz Kafka, the famously dark author, was a family friend who would take Herz-Sommer and her friends on rollicking walks through the woods.
“He said they had to find a certain magic animal in the forest, who was going to produce lunch for them,” said Caroline Stoessinger, a concert pianist and author of a 2012 biography called “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.”
Kafka’s stories would somehow lead to the spots where he had stashed a knapsack filled with sandwiches.
In 1931, Herz-Sommer met a musician named Leopold Sommer. Two weeks later, they married. Their son, Stephan, was born in 1937, two years before Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.
Restrictions on Jews increased and, in 1943, the small family was packed off to Theresienstadt.
The night before, her Czech friends dropped by to sort through the family’s possessions as if they had already gone. One neighbor, a member of the Nazi Party, brought biscuits and thanked her for her years of playing.
“The Nazi was the most human of all,” she said in a 2006 interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Leopold Sommer was sent from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and then Dachau, where he died of typhus.
Herz-Sommer immigrated to Israel after the war, joining her twin sister, Mizzi, in 1949. She taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory and seldom mentioned the Holocaust.
She also became friendly with former Prime Minister Golda Meir, with whom she peeled potatoes for a goulash.
“She always did what had to be done,” Stoessinger said.
Herz-Sommer moved to London in 1986 to join her son, who had changed his name to Raphael and become a cellist.
When Raphael died in 1998, his mother collapsed and, for a time, stopped playing.
“Her neighbors thought it would be the end for her,” Stoessinger said. “But then they heard her playing one day, and it was fine: Alice was back!”
She stayed in her apartment until two days before her death, seeing — and occasionally flirting — with journalists and well-wishers.
“It just seemed she was almost immortal,” Stoessinger said. “Her death was a shock.”
Herz-Sommer’s survivors include two grandsons.