Oldest Holocaust Survivor Approaches 107 and Release Of “Dancing Under the Gallows”
October 29, 2010
Forget that you have anything else to do for the next twelve minutes. Here’s the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, nearing her 107th birthday and sharing her thoughts on love and hate as she plays the piano in her London flat.
“God is music,” Alice says, in the trailer for “Dancing Under the Gallows.”
She was a 39-year-old concert pianist in Prague in 1943 when she, her husband and six-year-old son were arrested and sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin. Even as she remembers the torment of a mother who cannot feed her child, she recalls the divinity of playing more than 100 concerts in the camp. She is certain that keeping faith with music saved her sanity and her life and the lives of hundreds of others. It also helped her keep faith with humanity.
Born November 26, 1903, Alice, a twin, studied piano with Franz Liszt pupil Conrad Ansorge. Her mother, Sophie, was friends with Gustave Mahler and Franz Kafka. Her father ran a factory that made scales, and when he would come home exhausted at night, her mother would prompt her and her brother, a violinist, to play music for their father.
Alice grew up in a rich cultural milieu. Dvorak was still alive when she was born, and her mother took her to the world premiere of Mahler’s Second Symphony and, at 16, played for the great Austrian pianist Arthur Schnabel.
She married musician Leopold Summer in 1931. Their son Rafael, was born in 1937. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, most of her family and friends emigrated to Palestine via Romania, including Max Brod and brother-in-law Felix Weltsch, but her family stayed in Prague.
In 1942, the Nazis deported and killed her mother. She channeled her grief in the study of Chopin’s Etudes, technically some of the most difficult piano music. A year later, Alice, her husband, Leopold, and their son were sent to Terezin where she played at music concerts in the camp along with other musicians. “Sometimes it happens that I am thankful that I was there” because of the depth it gave to her appreciation of life, she says soulfully in the trailer.
When Germans come to visit and pay homage to her, she says they often hesitate before entering her room. They ask if it they may and if she doesn’t hate them. “I never hated,” she assures them.
After her family’s imprisonment, Alice’s husband was sent to Auschwitz. Though he survived that concentration camp, he died at Dachau in 1944. Following the Soviet liberation of Terezin in 1945, Alice and her son emigrated to Palestine and were reunited with her family. She lived in Israel until emigrating to London, United Kingdom with her son in 1986. Rafael died, at 64, in 2001.
She swam daily until the age of 97. At 104, Alice published the bestselling memoir A Garden of Eden in Hell. Optimism, she says, sustained her.