Alice Herz-Sommer, whose life and love of music is told in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Lady in Number 6, was born in Prague in 1903 to a German speaking Czechoslovak Jewish family.
Music and culture was part of her from a very early age – Franz Kafka was a childhood friend. However, the civilised circle of writers, musicians and artists in which she moved was to be destroyed by the Nazis.
In spite of waving off her husband and mother to their deaths in Dachau and Treblinka respectively, her indomitable spirit and love of life enabled her to speak of those times without malice and bitterness.
Herz-Sommer, like hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews before her, was ‘transported’ by the Nazis and imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp where her enduring memories were of her helplessness and inability to feed her six –year-old child, Raphael, or to answer his many questions about why they and so many others were being subjected to such treatment.
Being an accomplished concert pianist, she credits her talent with having saved her life as the Nazis ever alert to propaganda opportunities, used her among the camp orchestra . Indeed, in Theresienstadt, she took great pride in playing more than 100 concerts:
"These concerts, the people are sitting there, old people, desolate and ill, and they came to the concerts and this music was for them our food. Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive."
After the camp was liberated by the Soviets, she returned to Bohemia but found all of her past life gone; her apartment which was confiscated by the Nazis was occupied by someone else and none of her family or friends remained. With little reason to stay in Europe, she emigrated with her son to Palestine and made a new life for herself as a music tutor at the Jerusalem Music Aacademy.
Shortly before her 100th birthday, Alice moved to the UK to be closer to her son and grandchildren. Tragically Raffi died soon after, but unperturbed and on the cusp of her centenary she continued to play music every day, swam and began taking philosophy classes three times a week.
Alice Herz-Sommer was a remarkable human being, her outlook on life, even in Europe's darkest period, was always to be positive. She accepted her own mortality with the same sanguinity as she approached the end of her life:
"I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion. I am no longer myself. The body cannot resist as it did in the past.
"I think I am in my last days but it does not really matter because I have had such a beautiful life.
"And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love."
The Lady in Number Six, which is a documentary about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, can be downloaded or rented on Vimeo.Last modified: June 10, 2021