World’s oldest known Holocaust survivor, born in Prague, turns 108

Alice Herz-Sommer, a Czech-born survivor of the Nazi’s ‘show camp’ at Terezín and talented pianist, attributes her longevity to optimism

Brian Kenety 27.11.2011

Alice Herz-Sommer swam daily until the age of 97, plays Scabble at the weekend and her piano every day; she remains an eternal optimist foto: © Web of StoriesČeská pozice

Alice Herz-Sommer swam daily until the age of 97, plays Scabble at the weekend and her piano every day; she remains an eternal optimist

Seventy years ago this week, the Nazis began deporting Czech Jews to the garrison town of Terezín (Theresienstadt) in nothern Bohemia; the oldest known survivor of that Gestapo “show camp” — and of the Holocaust — this Saturday marks her 108th birthday.

Alice Herz-Sommer was born in Prague on Nov. 26, 1903, along with her twin sister, Mariana. Her mother came from a musical Moravian family and was a childhood friend of the composer Gustav Mahler, and she remembers hearing the first performance of his second symphony in Prague when she was about eight. “Still now when I listen to Mahler my mother is next to me,” she told The Guardian in an interview a few years back.

She began playing the piano when she was five and was soon taking lessons with a distinguished pupil of Liszt named Conrad Ansorge — “as a pianist, extraordinary, as a teacher, not so good,” she told the paper — while her sister was simultaneously taking singing lessons and sang in a performance of Mahler’s work. Her family, non-practising Jews, moved in Prague’s cultural circles; as a young girl, she knew Franz Kafka, who was a close friend of her elder sister’s husband. 

By her mid-teens, Alice was touring as a pianist and met her husband to be, Leopold Sommer, also a gifted musician, in 1931, marrying him just two weeks later. She gave birth to their son, Raphael, in 1937, two years before, the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia; though most of her family and friends immigrated to Palestine via Romania, including Max Brod (Franz Kafka’s friend and biographer), she stayed in Prague, and, like some 150,000 other Jews, was sent to the ghetto in Terezín.

The Nazis made it into a “show camp” for Red Cross inspections and simultaneously a staging post for tens of thousands of Jewish inmates who were shipped off to their deaths in other camps. It operated for three-and-a-half years, serving as a transit station especially for Czech Jews who were artistically and culturally talented — like Herz-Sommer — but in reality, it served as a concentration camp for Jews before their deportation to death camps elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

© Web of Stories (refresh your browser if video isn’t visible)

About 88,000 inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. At the end of the war there were 17,247 survivors of Terezín. Four years ago, Herz-Sommer published a book about her time in Terezín called A Garden of Eden in Hell, in which she recalls how she was forced to play over 150 concerts inside the camp, where disease and malnutrition were rife, and conditions appalling due to the extreme population density.

“We had to play music because the Red Cross came and the Germans were trying to show what a good life we had,” she told The Guardian. “It was our luck, actually. Even so, hundreds and hundreds were dying around us every day. It was a hard time.” Despite the atrocities she and her family witnessed and endured, Herz-Sommer still maintains that the Nazis were “only human.” For a while, she, her husband and son, then six years old, had been allowed to stay in their own Prague flat. Then, in 1943 — a year after her mother had been sent away with — the three were also sent to Terezín.

In a filmed interview, she tells of a Nazi named Hermann who had occupied the apartment above hers; the evening before she and her family were sent to the camp, he and his wife came calling bearing baked goodies, and said (as recounted for Web of Stories in a lengthy interview): “Mrs. Sommer, I see you are [going] away. I don’t know what to tell you. In any case, I hope you will come back. What I know ... what I want to tell you is that ... I admire your playing ... hours and hours, the patience and the beauty of the music ... I thank you. In any case, I thank you.”

‘Everything is a Present’

Raphael, too, took part in performances at Terezín, including in Hans Krása’s opera for children called “Brundibár” (colloquial czech for bumblebee) presented as part of the Nazis’ propoganda effort. The boy survived the war — over 90 percent of the 15,000 children sent at Terezín were later murdered in death camps — but his father Leopold did not; like some 88,000 other inhabitants of Terezín, he was deported to an extermination camp, first to Auschwitz and then to Dachau, where he died of typhus in 1945, six weeks before the war ended.

© YouTube (refresh your browser if video isn’t visible)

Miraculously, Herz-Sommer did not share her husband’s fate, and remained at Terezín until it was liberated by the Soviets in 1945. She returned to Prague that year, but some months after the Communist coup of February 1948 emigrated to Israel to be reunited with her family. She worked as a music teacher in Jerusalem until 1986, when she moved to London along with her son, Raphael, by then an accomplished cellist. ‘This is the reason I am so old ... I know about the bad things, but I look only for the good things.’

Herz-Sommer swam daily until the age of 97. Last year, a documentary of her life called “Everything is a Present” aired on BBC4, in which while speaking of shocking and heartbreaking events, she also plays Schubert, Smetana and Beethoven in a style the world has long forgotten — that of her teacher Artur Schnabel, “a style redolent of a happier and more confident time in music making and one which many will find heartwarming,” as director Christopher Nuphen put it.

Herz-Sommer attributes her longevity to her optimism. “I tell you something. I had a twin sister — same mother, same father, same upbringing. She was extremely gifted, but a terrible pessimist, but I was the contrary. This is the reason I am so old, even now, I am sure. I am looking for the nice things in life. I know about the bad things, but I look only for the good things.”

This Thursday (Nov. 24) marked the 70th anniversary of the first deportations to Terezín. The occasion is being commemorated in the Czech capital in a series of lectures, concerts and assorted events, with Holocaust survivors and historians offering valuable insights to put the tragic events into a contemporary perspective. See related story: Prague Jewish Museum marks 70th anniversary of Terezín deportations