Featured Article: A Tribute to Alice Herz-Sommer

by Esther Basha (MGBH)

She looks at us from the screen
And gives us the sweetest smile.
She says, “Life is a present.
Music is my religion,
And piano saved my life.”
How?” we ask her in awe.
She pauses to tell us more.

                                                                                                      – Esther Basha “A Tribute To Alice Herz-Sommer”

There are many great pianists worthy of writing about, worthy of bringing the stories of their music and talent to light, but the story of Alice Herz-Sommer (OBM), a pianist from Pre-war Czechoslovakia is special.  The piano did not only play a prominent role in her life. It, literally, SAVED her life.

During the war, when Nazis came to power, Alice, along with her beloved husband Leopold (OBM) and son Rafi (OBM) were sent to a concentration camp.  Theresienschtadt.  That camp, however, was no ordinary camp.  It was a model camp that the Nazis used to show the world of how well they treated their prisoners. The Jews that comprised the elite of society and were able to contribute to that “show-and-tell” were spared. Alice was among them. She and her fellow musicians were assigned to entertain the Nazis through playing music.

 

Alice Herz-Sommer as a little girl

Someone once said that leaders are not born, leaders emerge from the dire circumstances. Alice’s leadership emerged as she saw the ugly face of Evil.  Intuitively, she realized that Evil couldn’t be fought with Evil, that Darkness could not be fought with Darkness. She decided to fight Darkness with Light. In her interviews she mentioned that she used to have a twin sister. Her twin sister was a born pessimist, and Alice was given a gift of being an optimist. In her life she chose to see only good, while acknowledging that bad still existed.

Against all socially promoted norms where children modeled their parents’ reactive behavior, Alice decided not to react.  And that was the beginning of her victory.  She remembered her mother’s teachings of being grateful for everything.  Her motherly instincts also played an important role as she felt that as long as she was happy, nothing would emotionally scar her five-and-a-half-year-old son Rafi, who remained the only memory of her husband that had been transferred to Auschwitz shortly after the family been captured.  Her plan worked.  Her son avoided the trauma that so many ended up carrying with them through life.   The most curious thing is that Alice did not just act happy for the sake of her son, she was truly happy.  She chose happiness regardless of the circumstances, which is one of the main concepts of Jewish faith.  Although she grew up without a religion in a family of intellectual humanists (her parents were friends with Kafka (OBM), Sigmund Freud (OBM), and many other prominent figures of that time), the generational genetic memory of her ancestors practicing Judaism in a proper way somehow seeped into her DNA, while skipping her sister’s.

Alice Herz-Sommer with her son Rafi

 

Alice played piano along with other musicians, and this was her escape. To her, music was food – the manna from heaven.  And with that food she fed her child as well.

After being liberated from the camps, Alice moved to Israel where, ideologically, she felt at home.  She raised her son and partially restored her piano career.  Although she became a successful teacher, given the circumstances of being a dedicated single mother, she was unable to pursue a full-blown career of a pianist as she did before the war.  Life was good to Alice.  Her attitude in adherence to the Light put her in a mental state that so many wish to achieve – a state of perpetual gratitude.   Gratitude for every little and big thing that came her way. “Life is a present,” she would often say to her late friends. “Everything in life is a present.”

 

Later in life, she followed her son to London. But the hopes of growing old next to him did not realize. Her son Rafi, then in his sixties, right after his stage performance in Israel (he became a successful musician as well) told his friends he didn’t feel well and they rushed to the hospital.  He was diagnosed with iliac aneurysm, and was given anesthesia prior to the operation. “He never woke up,” Alice recounted.   He went into a surgery with hope and faith. He died without fear or suffering. And this is what his mother, the brave Alice, chose to concentrate on after she received the news of his unexpected death. She grieved with a positive attitude. In her interviews she mentioned that she was happy he did not have to experience all the troubles of old age and that he passed in a peaceful way without suffering.

 

Leopold Sommer, Alice’s beloved husband.

 

So, she stayed in London, next to her daughter-in-law and her grandsons. At the age of 108, she lived by herself, without a home attendant. She still gave interviews, welcomed guests daily in her small apartment, and …. as part of her daily routine played the piano. For several hours a day. She used to say that she was a Jew without a religion, and that music had become her religion. In the musical sense, she was an ultra-religious Jew.

 

Alice passed away at the age of 110. She became an inspiration to many. Another fellow pianist, Caroline Stoessinger, wrote a book A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.”  In 2013, Malcolm Clarke directed, wrote, and produced an Academy Award-winning documentary titled “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, which reached over 1.3 million views on YouTube.  Tony Robbins, a world famous motivational guru, interviewed Alice in her apartment and was amazed when she said that being in a concentration camp was a gift in some ways. “HOW?!” he exclaimed in disbelief. “I look where it’s good. I know that there is bad, but I look at the good thing,” she answered, with her smile turning into laughter. “I was always laughing.  I was with my son lying on the floor, and I was laughing.  How can a child not laugh, if the mother laughs?!”

 

There is something special about Holocaust survivors. Once faced with intense Darkness, one finds a strong desire to cleave to Light. And that feeling stays deep inside forever. One of our synagogue members, Henry (MFBH), is in his 90s and is by far the most cheerful person I’ve ever met. At his age, takes dance lessons, travels the world, and even has a girlfriend.   Once he gave me his card, which stated his first name, last name, and his title – LOVER OF LIFE.   Now, this is special.   But this is the story for another time. And for a different magazine.