Alice Herz-Sommer, Who Found Peace in Chopin Amid Holocaust, Dies at 110

Throughout her two years in Theresienstadt, through the hunger and cold and death all around her, through the loss of her mother and husband, Alice Herz-Sommer was sustained by a Polish man who had died long before. His name was Frédéric Chopin.
It was Chopin, Mrs. Herz-Sommer averred to the end of her long life, who let her and her young son survive in the camp, also known as Terezin, which the Nazis operated in what was then Czechoslovakia from 1941 until the end of the war in Europe.
Mrs. Herz-Sommer, who died in London on Sunday at 110, and who was widely described as the oldest known Holocaust survivor, had been a distinguished pianist in Europe before the war. But it was only after the Nazi occupation of her homeland, Czechoslovakia, in 1939 that she began a deep study of Chopin’s Études, the set of 27 solo pieces that are some of the most technically demanding and emotionally impassioned works in the piano repertory.
For Mrs. Herz-Sommer, the Études offered a consuming distraction at a time of constant peril. But they ultimately gave her far more than that — far more, even, than spiritual sustenance.
“They are very difficult,” Mrs. Herz-Sommer told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2010. “I thought if I learned to play them, they would save my life.”
And so they did.
In recent years, because of her great age; her indomitability; her continued, ardent involvement with music (she practiced for hours each day until shortly before she died); and her recollections of her youthful friendships with titans like Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler; Mrs. Herz-Sommer became a beacon for writers, filmmakers and members of the public eager to learn her story.
She was the subject of biographies, including “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor” (2012), by Caroline Stoessinger, who confirmed her death.
Mrs. Herz-Sommer was also profiled in documentary films, one of which, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” a 38-minute portrait directed by Malcolm Clarke, is a 2014 Oscar nominee for documentary short subject. The awards take place on Sunday.
What seemed to draw audiences to Mrs. Herz-Sommer above all, as Mr. Clarke’s film makes plain, was her evident lack of rancor about her wartime experience. In the books and films about her, and in a welter of newspaper and magazine interviews, she expressed her unalloyed joy in making music and, quite simply, in being alive.
She was discouraged, she said, about just one thing.
“I am by nature an optimist,” Mrs. Herz-Sommer told The Observer, the British newspaper, in 2010. “But I am pessimistic about future generations’ willingness to remember and care about what happened to the Jews of Europe, and to us in Terezin.”
Alice Herz was born in Prague on Nov. 26, 1903, one of five children of a cultured, German-speaking, secular Jewish family. Her father was a prosperous businessman; her mother moved in the city’s shimmering artistic circles and numbered Kafka and Mahler among her friends.
As a child, Alice knew both men; Kafka (“a slightly strange man,” she recalled) attended one of the family’s Passover seders.
Alice began piano lessons at 5 and at 16 embarked on conservatory studies in Prague; by the time she was an older teenager, she was giving well-received concerts throughout Europe.
In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer, a businessman and amateur violinist; the couple had a son, Stepan (also spelled Stephan), in 1937.
In 1939, with the Nazi invasion imminent, some of Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s family fled Czechoslovakia for Palestine. She remained in Prague to look after her frail widowed mother.
Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s mother was deported to Terezin in 1942 and from there sent to a death camp, where she was killed.
It was after Mrs. Herz-Sommer escorted her mother to the deportation center in Prague (“the lowest point of my life,” she said) that she resolved to start work on Chopin’s Études.
Alice Herz in 1924, then a noted musician in Prague.
In 1943, Mrs. Herz-Sommer, her husband and their son were dispatched to Terezin. Part ghetto, part concentration camp, Terezin, northwest of Prague, was promoted by the Nazis as a model institution: many of its inmates had been among Czechoslovakia’s foremost figures in the performing arts.
Terezin had an orchestra, drawn from their ranks, whose members quite literally played for time before audiences of prisoners and their Nazi guards. Mrs. Herz-Sommer, playing the camp’s broken, out-of-tune piano, joined them.
“It was propaganda,” she later said. “We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year.”
But for Mrs. Herz-Sommer, who played more than 100 concerts in Terezin, the sustaining power of music was no less real.
“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 later said. “Through making music, we were kept alive.”
Terezin was a transit camp. From there, Jews were deported to forced-labor and death camps; of some 140,000 Jews who passed through Terezin, nearly 90,000 were deported to “almost certain death” at such camps, according to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 33,000 died in Terezin itself.
One of the prisoners transported from Terezin was Leopold Sommer, who in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz, and on to Dachau. He died there, probably of typhus, in 1945, a month before liberation.
Music spared Mrs. Herz-Sommer a similar fate. One night, after she had been in Terezin for more than a year, she was stopped by a young Nazi officer, as Ms. Stoessinger’s book recounts.
“Do not be afraid,” he said. “I only want to thank you for your concerts. They have meant much to me.”
He turned to leave before adding: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.”
After the war, Mrs. Herz-Sommer returned with Stepan to Prague but found its open anti-Semitism intolerable. In 1949, they emigrated to Israel, where she taught for many years at the Rubin Academy of Music, now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
In the mid-1980s, she moved to London, where her son, an eminent cellist known since their time in Israel as Raphael Sommer, had made his career.
After her son died of an aneurysm in 2001, at 64, music once again sustained her. Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s neighbors in her London apartment building, where she occupied Flat No. 6, knew she had weathered the blow when they heard her practicing once more.
Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s survivors include two grandchildren.
She was the subject of a BBC television documentary, “Alice Sommer Herz at 106: Everything Is a Present,” and another biography, “A Garden of Eden in Hell” (2007; later reissued as “Alice’s Piano”), by Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki.
A few years ago, after advancing age had immobilized one finger on each hand, Mrs. Herz-Sommer reworked her technique so she could play with eight fingers.
But though her hands were failing, her musical acumen remained sharp. In November, on Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s 110th birthday, Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, wrote in the magazine’s culture blog of having called on her in London the year before.
Because Mrs. Herz-Sommer could find journalists wearying, Mr. Ross, at the urging of her biographer Ms. Stoessinger, presented himself as a musician.
“Play something,” Mrs. Herz-Sommer commanded him.
Mr. Ross, at her piano, gamely made his way through some Schubert before Mrs. Herz-Sommer stopped him.
“Now,” she said, “tell me your real profession.”