PianistAlice Herz-Sommer

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Herz was born in Prague, when it was part of Austria-Hungary. As a child, she rubbed elbows with writers such as Franz Kafka (“Kafka was a slightly strange man,” she said later. “He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing.”) and composers like Gustav Mahler. She was inspired to be a classical pianist, and was renowned for her concerts — until the Nazis took over Prague. Most of her family fled, but she stayed to take care of her ill mother. Her mother was killed, and Herz, her husband Leopold Sommer, and their son were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she, and others, were forced to play concerts. “We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year,” she said later. “The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”

Her son was one of the few children to survive the camp; her husband was transferred to another camp; he died in Dachau. After Theresienstadt was liberated in 1945, Herz-Sommer lived in Israel for 40 years, teaching music, then moved to London in 1986, where she played the piano in her flat every day, and didn’t talk much about the Holocaust. “I look at the good,” she said. “It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad.” She survived because of music. “Music saved my live and music saves me still,” she said. “I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.” A short documentary, The Lady in Number 6, was made about her life — and is up for an Academy Award next month. She died February 23, at 110 years old — she was thought to be the oldest survivor of the Holocaust.

From This is True for 23 February 2014