Professional pianist and Terezin survivor Alice Herz-Sommer played her beloved instrument daily until her death at age 110 in 2014. She fell in love with the piano at an early age and her love for music quite literally kept her and her young son alive during the years they spent in Terezin. Alice, originally known as Aliza Herz, was born in Prague in 1903. She was a member of a well off German-speaking Jewish family, and her parents sponsored a cultural salon that attracted some of the most gifted minds of the time. Young Aliza met Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, among other writers, intellectuals and composers. In time, she too would become a prominent pianist in her own right.
Alice first learned the piano as a child from her older sister, Irma, and even at a young age, was a dedicated pianist, practicing hours each day. A family friend and composer named Artur Schnabel expressed his belief that Alice was suited to be a professional musician. Alice later decided that this was the career she wanted and entered the Prague Conservatory of Music, where she was the youngest student in the school.
In 1931, at the age of 26, Alice married a businessman and musician named Leopold Sommer, and they had one son, Raphael. Alice established herself as a concert pianist and became known throughout Europe. She was forced to stop performing after the Nazis took control of Prague and forbade Jewish musicians to perform in concerts and music competitions.
Most of Alice’s family managed to flee to Palestine, but her elderly mother was unable to travel and Alice, her husband and Raphael stayed behind to help care for her. Alice’s mother was sent to Terezin in 1942, and Alice accompanied her to the train station. On this journey, Alice realized just how dire the situation had become, and she found solace in music, teaching herself the incredibly challenging 24 Etudes of Frederic Chopin, often up to eight hours a day.
In July 1943, Alice, along with her husband and son were sent to Terezin, where she performed in over 100 concerts. She continued to find strength in performing her music, which helped to free her from the daily horrors of life at Terezin. Alice also did all she could to provide stability for Raphael, and together they survived the war in Terezin. Alice’s husband and mother were transported to Nazi extermination camps and murdered, and Alice never learned the details of their final moments.
After the war, Alice and Raphael moved to Israel, where they reunited with their relatives. Alice continued to perform and taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory for 35 years, until she moved to London in 1986. Raphael also became a highly accomplished concert cellist, but he died tragically and suddenly in 2001. Alice continued to live on her own in a London apartment, where she continued to play the piano for hours each day, up until her death at age 110.
Alice’s life inspired several books and documentary films, most recently, The Lady in Number 6, which won an Oscar in 2013 for Best Short Documentary. The documentary, filmed about a year before Alice died, is a remarkable tribute. We hear Alice’s story in her own words and learn of her natural optimistic and joyful personality, which the Nazis failed to take from her. It was clear that her passion and love for music and her family were the driving forces in her life, and her ability to see the beauty in music and life is deeply moving, especially after all she endured at the hands of the Nazis. I encourage you to see this film, so that you may see for yourself this gifted, passionate, resilient woman named Alice Herz-Sommer.