A few days ago I set off with my son to visit Alice Herz Sommer in her very cosy and modest flat in Belsize Park in North London and made an exclusive interview with her for readers of CzechFolks.com Plus. It was a few days before her 107th birthday.
Alice is currently the oldest Holocaust survivor and the second oldest Czech woman. Despite her age she welcomes several visitors each day into her flat who come to share her memories and life experiences. During my 40-minute stay she welcomed three more visitors from a young writer, visitor from Prague and another local lady who also survived her stay in a concentration camp. Till present day, Alice plays the piano for three hours a day and her flatmates say that living in the same block of flats as Alice means that they can listen to lovely piano recitals each day for free. Even passersby stop by Alice’s window and listen to her playing beautiful music. Alice loves to play Smetana and Dvořák, but her favourite is Beethoven. Alice assigns her longevity to optimism.
What was your childhood like? I get the impression that it was a nice one.
Yes, I come from a family of five children, and my twin sister and I were in the middle. My sister was always the pessimist, I was the optimist. Once when we were little, a passerby mentioned to my sister how beautiful she was. I hurried in quickly saying that I was the clever one.
You have grown up in a German speaking family?
Yes, my mother’s tongue was both German and Czech and I also learned English, French, Latin and Hebrew.
Your own son has praised you on how you brought him up in an atmosphere of love, happiness and understanding.
Yes, I believe that the mother has the biggest influence on her children. She is the one who gives her children confidence. My son reminds me how beautiful life is and I always appreciate the positive and don’t worry much about the negative. I also believe that as a mother I instilled confidence in him which proved to be very helpful.
I can imagine that it was again your optimism which helped you in the concentration camp Terezín.
Do not to forget that music actually saved my life there. If the Germans wanted music, then they could not send me into the gas chamber. As Terezín was a propaganda camp I was not separated from my son Raphael, who also acted and sang in the operas in the camp as a small boy.
What was your worst experience in Terezín?
Hunger was the worst thing. I do not understand how a man can kill another man. Animals do not do such things. On this occasion, I can remember the play “Mother” from Karel Čapek. She lost her husband and her sons in a war and wanted to stop her youngest son from going to fight. When she hears that a bomb was dropped on children in a nursery school, she sends even her youngest son to war as she wants him to protect these innocent small children.
When you returned from Terezín how did the Czech people behave towards you? When I was growing up in Prague in the eighties, I noticed that Roma people were hated. It hurt me deep inside and I could not justify the fact that if I was born into a Roma family the Czechs would hate me just because of that.
After the war, I immigrated to Israel, and as you describe, Jewish people were not very popular among the Czechs. They questioned how it was possible that we were coming home in such big numbers. They kept telling these jokes about gaps in the gas chambers.
I have noticed that German journalists come to interview you. Don’t you feel hatred towards them?
Absolutely not. Hatred only feeds hatred. And then I do not look at people as a group to be judged. I try to find the best in everybody. Behind each person is hidden a life story and I like to listen to it and learn from the experience.
Could you tell me about your life as a musician?
My family was very musical and so I grew up with music. Even though my family was not religious I found God in music. Music has saved me from death in a concentration camp and my son was a famous cellist. When he died suddenly nine years ago, it was again music which helped me to come to terms with my grief.
On behalf of all readers and contributors of CzechFolks, I would like to wish Alice Herz Sommer a very Happy Birthday, especially health into her next years and also to thank her, that she found the time to have such an inspiring interview with me, which I could share now with all the readers.
Alice Herz Sommer, also known as Alice Sommer-Hertz and Alice Sommer, (born 26 November 1903) is a Czech pianist, music teacher and survivor of the concentration camp Terezín. Herz-Sommer has lived in North London, United Kingdom since 1986.
Alice was born in Prague, along with her twin sister Mariana. She married the musician Leopold Sommer in 1931 and had a son, (1937 – 2001). After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, most of her family and friends immigrated to Palestine via Romania, including Max Brod and brother in law Felix Weltsch, but Herz-Sommer stayed in Prague. In 1942, her ill mother Sophie was killed. A year later, Herz-Sommer, her husband and son were sent to the concentration camp Terezín. Herz-Sommer played at music concerts in the camp along with other musicians. Leopold was later sent to Auschwitz and though he survived the camp, died at Dachau in 1944. After the Soviet liberation of Terezín in 1945, Herz-Sommer emigrated to Palestine to be reunited with her family. She lived in Israel until emigrating to London, United Kingdom with her son in 1986.
Herz-Sommer swam daily until the age of 97. At 104, Herz-Sommer published a bestselling book A Garden of Eden in Hell recalling the events of the concentration camps. In 2010, a television programme was aired on BBC4 to recognise her life story. Herz-Sommer attributes her longevity to her optimism.
At the age of 106 years the concert pianist Alice Herz-Somer is an international celebrity. But despite playing in front of audiences all over the world, perhaps the most notable aspect of her life is the ability to keep hoping in the face of unimaginable suffering. When she was a child Prague was a melting pot shared among Czechs, Germans and a large Jewish community. Her “ non-religious Jewish family ” assimilated and adopted the German literature and music as their own heritage.
“Her strongest critic,” and her music guide was her mother.
Her life philosophy and the reason for which one should live is for her a mother’s love for her child, which is the foundation of everything, and music became her “religion.”