Remembering Alice Herz-Sommer

Pianist Alice Herz Sommer at 108

“Life is beautiful”: the maxim that carried Alice Herz-Sommer through a long and sometimes hard life – I am one of thousands to whom she brought warmth, either personally (as above, on one of my occasional visits; she was then 108) or through her fame as a beacon of tolerance (photograph by Regina Hepner-Neupert)

News has come through of the death this morning, 23 February 2014, of Alice Herz-Sommer, at the age of 110. Alice had become an icon, an international symbol of goodness, through her insistence that ‘Life is beautiful’ — an outlook maintained in spite of two years incarceration in Terezín in 1943–45 and the death of her only son, the cellist Raphael Sommer, in 2001. Alice was remarkable not only in her longevity: she lived alone and was clear-headed and healthy, happily receiving a stream of visitors almost every weekday afternoon; only right at the end did age begin to make minor inroads on her extraordinary constitution. A few years ago, for example, I rang her on behalf of an Australian scholar, who wanted, before he booked a flight to Britain, to be sure that she would be free to be interviewed a month or so later. I told Alice, then aged 104, that he was hoping to come for the week beginning 26 July or something of the sort; she thought for a split second — certainly not long enough to consult a diary — and replied: ‘That week I am free on the Monday afternoon and the Thursday’. Rather than try to describe this wonderful woman in my words, she can tell her life in her own. One of several interviews she gave me was published as an article in International Piano last year, and I post it here in memory of her.

A Century of Music-Making: Alice Herz-Sommer in Conversation

Alice Herz Sommer has become an icon: 110 on her next birthday and the oldest living Holocaust survivor, the subject of two books, several films and countless YouTube clips, Alice sees herself principally as a musician. As a Czech Jew – she was born in Prague in 1903 – she went to Hell and back: four years of oppression after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia was followed by two more in Terezín, the garrison town turned concentration camp outside Prague. There, though, the Germans famously permitted an intellectual life, since it cut down on the policing cost, and Alice gave well over a hundred concerts there, often repeating programmes because the demand for music was so strong. When liberation was followed by further oppression under the Communists, Alice and her son, later to make his own name as the cellist Raphael Sommer, moved to Israel, where she established a reputation as an outstanding teacher. A CD of private recordings – made in her sixties, seventies and eighties and released with the German edition of her biography – revealed that, hidden behind this story of miraculous survival, she was one of the great pianists of the past century. These performances – largely domestic, and many of them made on out-of-tune upright, ornamented by sparrows in the background – of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Schubert and Smetana (the only release on ‘AHS Recordings’) are informed by an unerring feel for the pulse of the music. It is instantly clear that if her career had not been double derailed by war and exile, we would speak of her in the same breath as Serkin and Schnabel. Though – scarcely credibly – she is a ‘grand-student’ of Liszt, having studied with Conrad Ansorge, one of Liszt’s later disciples, her insights come from her own relentless study of the music that has sustained her for over a century. Astonishingly, she lives on her own in a flat in Belsize Park, in north London, still practising from 10am till 1pm every day, after which a constant stream of visitors comes to pay respect. Alice’s basic philosophy – ‘Life is beautiful’ – has enabled her to draw strength even from the many adversities that have confronted her over the years. You come away from a visit to Alice feeling younger yourself, with a spring in your step: she is not religious but her gratefulness for being alive radiates a spirituality that illuminates her conversation with a profound human decency.

If we were to talk just about your life we have over a hundred years to cover, but we can go back even further, because your mother was a friend of Mahler.

This is a beautiful story; I’m proud of this story. My mother was born in Iglau, in Moravia, a little bit south of Bohemia. This little town was German, surrounded by Czechs. My grandfather and grandmother were very friendly with the parents of Mahler, and my mother played as a child with Gustav Mahler. She told us that children were laughing at him, because as a little child he was already something special. During my whole life, when I listen to Mahler I have a special feeling of my grandmother and my mother. Besides, the music is very near to the Czech and Moravian landscape – the ländlers and the marches.

He died in 1911, when you were eight. Did you meet him at all?

No. But I remember the first performance of the Seventh Symphony. My mother went of course to this concert, although we were small, and she was very impressed. The Seventh Symphony is one of the best, in my opinion; the others are too long.

When did you first begin to feel an affinity for music?

My mother was extremely musical, and we were five children, all very musical; our language was only music. My father liked opera; my mother played a little bit of piano. We were three daughters and two sons. The elder son was very musical but went in another direction. The younger son was an excellent violinist, so when he was maybe ten and I was not yet eight, we already played sonatas. My mother was sitting there every evening (my father went to bed at 8 o’clock) and said ‘Kinder, geht spielen’ [‘Children, go and play’] – and so we played. My elder sister, Irma, was very musical and was my teacher. When I was five, she started to teach me, up to the age of twelve and then she took me to her teacher, Václav Štěpán, a Czech. I have his photograph here – an excellent teacher and musicologist, a writer and a player. I learnt under his control up to the age of sixteen. Before Irma went to this teacher, she had some lessons with Alexander Zemlinsky. For the whole opera audience in Prague Zemlinsky was our teacher, teaching us to love especially the operas of Mozart.

What kind of man was Zemlinsky?

He was not good-looking, not tall at all, but he was enormously charming and was surrounded by the most beautiful women; they were enthusiastic about him. And then he was one of the best Mahler conductors. I forgot to mention – this is something special as well – that my brother-in-law, my older sister’s husband, was the best friend of Franz Kafka, and Franz Kafka came to our house. I had a twin sister and we were quite small. He came and spoke with my mother, who was very intelligent and knowledgeable. When I came to Israel, I read his books, of course: my brother-in-law and his best friend were there and on Sundays we were together and we spoke about Kafka and read his works. Kafka is like [as familiar as] my nose! I remember one very beautiful situation. We were maybe seven years old, my sister and myself; we were outside Prague in the summer days. He took us and we went to the forest and we were sitting on a bench and he was sitting in front of us on a stone, and he was telling us a story. I can’t remember the story but I remember the impression we got. He was like a child, with big eyes. We were three children, sitting there. He loved children.

Did he strike you as a tormented personality?

He was a man who apologised to himself for being alive: shy, didn’t speak and afraid of living. Life was a fight for him. He was not especially musical.

When you were sixteen, you went to study with Conrad Ansorge.

When Conrad Ansorge came to Prague from Hamburg, he was a very well-known Beethoven interpreter. He was not young any more – in his fifties, I believe; he came once a month, and in his class were pianists from the whole republic. I was the youngest – a lot of them were already well-known pianists and teachers. I went three years to this course. I must say now when I look back, as a pedagogue it seems to me he was not ideal, but when he was sitting next to the piano and played, it was extraordinary.

Ansorge was one of Liszt’s last pupils, which makes you a ‘grandstudent’ of Liszt. Did he transmit to you anything that Liszt told him?

He spoke a lot about it. Liszt got a kiss from Beethoven, Ansorge got a kiss from Liszt and I got a kiss from Ansorge! One dark moment in this master-class I noticed from the beginning: he was a drinker. So I asked if I can be the first, at 9 o’clock in the morning, because even at 11 or 12 he was not quite so interesting. But it doesn’t matter: we learned. In my opinion the master-class is the best lesson because you learn from the mistakes of the others – the best lesson not only in music but all of life, politics.

Did he give you any technical advice that he learned from Liszt – to play a particular passage in a particular way, for example?

No, nothing like that. He didn’t speak a lot, but he was sitting at the piano and showed us, once a month. But he didn’t remember what he told the students to prepare for the following month: he forgot that he should know this and she should know that; it was a little bit neglectful, not quite devoted. During these three years I leant also theory very seriously and solfège; and our choir was singing and Zemlinsky was conducting.

You say that Ansorge was a noted Beethoven interpreter, but you became one yourself, of course, after your debut in 1924. Which composers were the backbone of your repertoire?

Especially Beethoven; also I was an enthusiastic admirer of Schumann as well, and when you are young, you are more romantic, and this Schumann was. I played a lot of it at this age and still now. And I admire him still as the best composer for the piano. Much better than Chopin, for instance.

Why is that? What is it that makes Schumann superior?

He exploited more the beauty of the instrument, I think.

You played for Schnabel in Berlin in 1933. Could you tell us about that?

He’s here; one of these pictures is him. He was very popular in my time, very. I wanted to play for him, listen to his opinion, so I came and I played the Bach Partita si bemol, Schumann, I believe, and Smetana I played as well. He asked me what did you come for, really? I told him, I was not any more so young, I was not yet 30, and I wanted to know his opinion about my playing, should I go this way or find another direction in life. He said: I couldn’t teach you any more. It was a compliment.

You became a noted exponent of modern music, too; you knew a lot of composers. Was Martinů one of them?

In this time, I knew about him. There was an international competition in Vienna; the age-limit was 30 and I was 29, so the first moment I read in the newspaper, I phoned or sent a telegram that I wanted to participate. We had to know one the last sonatas by Beethoven (I played Op. 110, with the fugue), a Romantic piece (I played the Variations Symphoniques by Schumann) and for the modern piece I played three dances by Martinů. The big hall was packed full, and on the jury were the greatest living pianists, like Sauer, Rosenthal, Friedman from Poland. I was the first, at 9 o’clock in the morning. I came on the stage and there was a curtain: you couldn’t see the jury and they couldn’t see us. At 6 o’clock in the afternoon we went to a certain place and there was written who went to the next selection – and I went through. The curtain was already up: I could see everybody and they could see me. I played Schumann. They asked: ‘Please play No. 8’ (there are twelve études). I forgot and played No. 7. They rang a bell and said: ‘You made a mistake – this is not 8, it is 7’. I was sure that now it was finished. But at 6 o’clock I went again to this place – and I could go to the last selection and play Martinů. They didn’t know who Martinů was. It was very effective. There were more than 100 pianists from all over the world. Three of us got diplomas; I was one of them, two of them got prizes, including an Austrian girl who in my opinion was not so extraordinary. I was very glad, very proud, and it helped me a lot with my publicity.

Was this the time you worked with Eduard Steuermann?

Yes, after the masterclass with Ansorge, I did one year with Steuermann, coming from Poland. He was a very strange character. By the end of the year I was not happy with him. I told him: ‘You never tell me what to work on, what was not good and what was good’. Then I played a lot on the radio, throughout the republic, I played in Germany two or three times, I played in Belgium once, in France I played once – and I was teaching a lot. At the age of 31 I married. The family of my husband came from Vienna and my husband was one of three children, extremely musical, a very good violinist, but it was not his profession. He was very knowledgeable, knew a lot of languages. He was an ideal person, I must say – as my son: both really special people. The most beautiful time of my life was when my son was born in 1937. Hitler came in ’39. I was not any more so young. In this age a mother is aware of her duty and her responsibility (nowadays children have children!). This is the climax of human life. Men don’t know what it is to be a father; in my opinion it is ridiculous that his name goes on, but he doesn’t know what it is; for the mother the child is her, is identical, you feel with the child, you listen with his ears; he is a part of your soul. With my son at the age of two we could see he was extremely musical, sitting for hours next to the piano and looking for the melodies that I played, which he heard from my pupils and from my husband. At the age of ten (I was teaching him) he was an excellent pianist already and then we went to a concert by Antonio Janigro, a cellist from Yugoslavia, and he said to me: ‘Mother, I must learn cello, I must!’ Then the next day we went to a teacher, a good friend of mine, so he started at the age of ten the cello and after three lessons, he played the Sarabande and Minuet of one of the Bach suites – after three lessons!

We have skipped a rather important time in your life: by the time you became a mother, you already worked with a lot of important composers – Viktor Ullmann, for example. What was he like?

He was a shy person and very polite: when I presented him to a women, he kissed her hand (for an Austrian that’s strange!), and he was very knowledgeable, not only musically: literature, poetry, he knew everything. He belonged to these people in Switzerland, anthroposophy, which I didn’t understand actually. I asked him a lot: ‘Explain to me what it is’. It’s something like a religion; I don’t know. He was a noble character. I played one of his sonatas very often in Terezín, then in Israel, wherever I went. An excellent composer – his opera is one for eternity.

Also before the war you knew Vítězslav Novák.

I knew a lot of Czechs. My teacher, Václav Štěpán, was Czech, and through him I knew Suk a little bit, not very much. Novák: I played his Sonata in F minor, a beautiful composition. I knew a lot of young Czech composers, and I played a lot of first performances from young composers. I had the gift of learning very quickly and they knew it, they came to me and I played a lot of modern music really.

Did you know Janáček?

No, but I knew of him through good friends of his, musicians. A very difficult character, very difficult. Janáček without Max Brod wouldn’t have been popular. My brother-in-law, Max Brod and Franz Kafka were three very good friends, they went to school together and Max Brod had relations with Germany and with Swiss publishers and he helped to publish Jenůfa, the first Janáček opera to make his reputation.

Did you play any of Janáček’s compositions?

I played the Sonata and In the Mists. My son played some very beautiful things by Janáček as well. Janáček is a music which I know from the first tone is something special.

Max Brod was a composer, too, of course.

It’s not so convincing! But he was an extraordinary man, and he was a critic, I had a lot of criticism by him. I saw him always sitting in the same place when I came to the piano. He was a critic who started his reviews always with the good things and in the end one sentence: maybe it could be this and this, a little bit of such and such.

Which other composers stand up in your memory especially of those times?

Hába! I played a sonata in one of my concerts, in the break he came and thanked me. I said to him: ‘You didn’t know I forgot two bars?’ – and he didn’t; in the second movement I forgot. Hans Krása was a good friend of mine, not only him but his sister and his parents. He was the contrary of Ullmann: not knowledgeable, he was a charmer, a womaniser. He was already forty-something and living still with his parents at this time – very strange. His mother took care of him. I must say something about his opera Brundibár. When we came to Terezín, the next day they knew about my very gifted child, so they gave him a role, not only in the choir but one in the main roles, the sparrow. There were three enemies: a sparrow, a dog and a cat. This opera is very popular in America, Australia, in the whole world: everything about children, connected with children is attracted and moving. I remember Krása sitting at the piano and conducting and playing the part of the orchestra. The children loved it and we loved it as well. Fifty times or more than they performed it. It was for us was a relief: in this dark, terrible time, we had these moments of bliss.

What were your main platforms as a performer in pre-war Prague?

I was playing a lot. There were the German and Czech radio stations. This is very interesting. Czechoslovakia didn’t exist before the First World War; when I was born in 1903, Bohemia belonged to the Austria-Hungarian monarchy; the language was German and, of course, and Czech. There were 12 million Czech people living there and 2 million Germans, and maybe 150,000 Jews. These three very strong cultures hated one another: the Czechs against the German, the Germans against the Czech, and both terrible against the Jews. This was always the same and will be always the same. Jewish parents mostly sent their children to German schools, because they considered the German culture higher than the Czech. The same was in Slovakia where the Jews sent the children to Hungarian schools and not to Slovakian schools.

But before you were sent to Terezín you had to endure four years in occupied Prague.

When the Nazis came this was a hard time. The greatest punishment for me by Hitler were two terrible things. First, the yellow star: Jewish people had to wear a yellow star.

Did you consider yourself assimilated before that?

Absolutely. We were brought up without my religion, my parents, myself, my son. I couldn’t understand: because of the religion you are hated? I can’t explain – humiliating, terribly humiliating.

Were you able to continue your musical life in Prague?

In my home. In this time Ullmann came very often to our house. We played and singers came and quartets of course played, a lot of quartets, chamber music. Always on Sundays people came and were very thankful

But normal life must have been very hard.

It was very hard, very hard. For instance, we couldn’t go with our children to the parks, to walk in the park. We went to the Jewish cemeteries, because the air is better. We couldn’t buy things in shops: we were allowed to go from 3 to 3.30 to the shops and already everything was sold. We weren’t allowed to go with the buses. All men lost their jobs, cars, everything; bijouterie, everything of value we had to give to the Germans, all money – we were without anything. I didn’t mind, you know: money didn’t exist for me. But the second terrible thing was to be in the concentration camp for a six-year-old child. He asked (at that age children ask): ‘Why am I here? Why am I hungry?’ I don’t want to describe these terrible scenes we saw there. This was a punishment for me, I must say.

You went there relatively late, in 1943.

We went for two years, from ’43 to ’45. My husband was only there in the first year, then he was sent with the other men of the best age, from 20 to 35. Before he left us – and this I can’t understand even now – I had to swear to him that I will not do anything voluntarily. This was on a Monday. On the Thursday again a transport, and a thousand more were sent away. Under the name ‘Follow your husbands’, mothers and children followed their husbands – but never found their husbands and were killed. So I stayed there. My husband saved our lives. How he could think of this? This is extraordinary – I can’t understand.

When you got to Terezín to begin with, what were your first impressions? It must have been be a terrible shock.

Still in Prague, we had to be at a place at 5 o’clock in the morning. It was like a railway station, a big railway station and my first impression was very depressing. Before we came in, on the right hand, not covered, outside there were toilets and people were sitting on these toilets. In this moment you were not any more a human being; you were a sort of animal, without dignity and this opened my eyes. So this was my first moment. We went normally, with the train. It is one hour and a half north-west from Prague, and then they brought us to an attic. It was called Theresienstadt in German because 200 years ago Maria Theresa ordered a place for big military houses; it’s big, big, big. They let us into one of these houses in the attic: there were mattresses, and this was our home. Every mother with a child: one mattress, and this was all. We were there for several months, it was cold and windy – terrible.  I spoke after the war with a lot of people who wanted to know, psychologists as well. The fact that I was always two years with my son only in one mattress lying he felt all my body, my feet and I felt his. This saved him. Strange, before he died we found a sort of autobiography he wrote. He started: ‘I have a good recollection of my own; my mother, how she could do this; I played with children; we didn’t go to school, I was singing in this opera’.

It must have been difficult to shield him from the material conditions there.

We didn’t eat: in the morning we had a black water named coffee, at lunchtime a white water called soup, in the evening a black water called coffee, so my son didn’t grow a millimetre. It was really very miserable. I played the 24 Études by Chopin without eating. These 24 Études are the greatest challenge for every pianist. We played without music: we were not allowed music; it was all in our head. I believe we don’t need food, in hard times we have a need…. it’s a sort of religion maybe, this music for us was a religion. I played the Schubert Sonata in B flat – one of the best sonatas – and I remember now or after 70, 80 years thinking, when I played the Adagio, if Hitler were sitting there in the audience, he couldn’t kill people, he couldn’t…. This was music, but there was not only music. There were conferences that you could listen whatever you wanted in science and literature, learn languages, whatever. It’s astonishing really – it was a cultural centre, this Terezín. I had more than 100 concerts, maybe 150 – I can’t remember. There was a little hall, a town hall, maybe for 150 people, very nice room, an upright like here, not a big piano. In winter time we were wearing lots of clothes and gloves – it was very cold – but I played. For instance, I played two recitals of Beethoven sonatas: ‘Waldstein’, ‘Appassionata’, Les Adieux, G major, Op. 10, Op. 110, Op. 109. Then I played a lot of Brahms, accompanied a singer lady; we made very often recitals of Brahms and Schumann. Then I played the Études by Chopin. When people loved one programme, we played it several times. I played sonatas by Beethoven 20 times and the same with the Chopin Études as well. I played every evening, I could say.

You had, quite literally, a captive audience. Was classical music was something new to them?

No. First of all, the audience were concert-goers from the biggest cities in Europe, Warsaw, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, from everywhere. Besides that, they were miserable and desolate and for them it was an escape, like religion as for us, the same strange situation. When I knew I would play in the evening, I was happy. This is very difficult to understand but this was so. The musicians there were first-class musicians, excellent pianists, composers, conductors. Three or four pianists – one of the best was Edith Kraus, my best friend, one from Hungary, a very good pianist and one from Bohemia. Besides, there was a very good violinist: I played all the sonatas by Beethoven several times with him, he came from Holland, I played with the first violinist of the Czech Symphony – Ledeč his name – all the sonatas and all the trios by Beethoven. But there were two terrible things. One day we had to be at 5 o’clock in the morning in a certain place. It was in March, very bad weather, cold and windy. We were mostly women with children. We had to go alone out of the ghetto, we came to a place, and nothing was there. And from far we saw something black and we thought maybe our husbands are there. We were standing for hours and the children were nervous, hungry and cold. We didn’t know what to do. Suddenly an SS came, a Nazi, and shouted: ‘Ten people get up!’ So I took my child and we waited to be shot. Hundreds of people asked me how we feel when we are in such a terrible, terrible situation. I must say I was not at all scared. I never was scared – it’s my luck; I don’t know what is being scared. But what I remember still now: it was like a black curtain came down in front of my eyes and I  waited; what will happen to me, happen to my child and this is all. After a long while we heard shouting in the Czech language ‘Back to the ghetto!’ This ‘back to the ghetto’! What had been hell became paradise. It’s amazing how quickly your values can change!

What was the other thing, the terrible thing that you wanted to talk about?

The other thing was even the worse, one day after my husband was sent away. We women had to work. Myself with my very good friend Edith Kraus, we had to work in the laundry, we had to wash; it was hard work. I didn’t mind: I’m a very active person. The problem was that I had to leave my boy. I had to be 5 o’clock there and my boy left the house at 8 – what will happen to him? I took him in the street where we were living; nobody was there. At the end I saw an old women – she was much younger than I am now! – and I asked her if my boy can stay in her room till 8 o’clock. She said: ‘Yes, of course: let him’. He was crying and shouting, ill with a high fever, shouting: ‘Yesterday father left us; now you leave me’. He was five years old and alone in the world. A child – what does he feel, what is the world for a child? This was the worst.

I wanted to ask you about another composer, too: Gideon Klein. Vilém Tauský told me that the of all the Terezín composers Klein was the most gifted.

Yes, very, very gifted. I met him very often and I knew him very well, he was quite young when he came to Terezín, 21, an excellent pianist, a composer already and knowledgeable person, an extraordinary personality. Not outgoing, but through his knowledge, quiet and very good. I believe he would have had a good future.

Karel Ančerl was interned in Terezín, too – did you sing in any of his performances of the Verdi Requiem?

He was a good friend of mine. No, I was not singing, but sometimes I was playing the piano, the part of the orchestra.

What condition was the piano in?

Very bad at the beginning, but in the end we got a big piano, three or four months before the end of the war.

When liberation got closer, how much were you aware it was going to happen?

We knew seven weeks before that Hitler lost the war, this we knew already. And on 9 May ’45 Russians came.

What was left of life afterwards?

The brother of my husband came back, he survived. But I was sure that my husband would not come back. When I came back to Prague again, I realised what the war was: nobody came back, nobody of my family, nobody of my husband’s family or my friends, I was the only one.

And your son Raphael was one of the few children who survived?

He was – one of maybe twelve.

How did you restart your life after the war?

The Jewish community was excellent and helped us a lot. We got a little flat. I had immediately pupils again and I played, I played on the Czech radio. Both my sisters went to Palestine (it was not yet Israel) ten years before I went: they went in 1939 and I came in 1949 to Israel.

Why didn’t you leave with them before the war?

We were three sisters. You had to get a certain certificate; they didn’t give it to three – two was enough. On the other hand I was glad because my mother was there, she was old, and so I could live with my mother and take care of my mother. This gave me satisfaction, of course.

In Israel you had to start all over again, of course.

Yes. The language! I was 45 years old and I learned a language which has no connection with any other western language; I was not brought up [with it], I didn’t know prayers or anything. I didn’t know anything about Jewishness, but I wanted to know the language because of my son. I didn’t want to speak with mistakes – I’m very ambitious. So, I learned – ten years, intensively from the morning to the evening; I am a bad sleeper, so whole nights I learned – and I know it. Extraordinary language, extraordinary: very strange, a language without ‘to be’. Besides it’s a language without vowels: you don’t read, you don’t write the vowels, you don’t know if it’s a, e, i, o…. You have to remember that it is this word, remember everything. Besides this, it is logical like Latin, enormously logical.

What did your daily life consist of in Israel?

Mostly I played a lot. I was already engaged when I was still in Prague. I was teaching at the academy [the Jerusalem Conservatory]. I had very good pupils and I played a lot, a lot. I went through the whole kibbutzim. It was a cultural centre again. I was there 37 years and five wars. We have now to pay for the mistakes we made. We treated the Arabs as inferior. They have another culture, but you have to be in friendship with your neighbours – you can’t live all the time with fight with your enemies, you have to be friendly. I had a lot of Arab pupils, they were wonderful people. Whole families came to visit me.

Did you ever retire as such?

I’ve never retired. When I was 84, my son was living here [and said]: ‘Now you must come’, and so I came. I love English people. I admire first of all their sense of humour. In my opinion the sense of humor is not laughing, it is distance from things. For instead, when French people see something happen, they are [she raises her hands in exaggerated gesticulation]. English people look at it. Thy are helpful, and polite, of course. Politeness I learnt at school. Politeness is three little words – ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ and ‘please’ – but it is not only these little words: it is respect from one to another.

And you’re still an active musician?

Still, yes. I can’t be with people that don’t like this wonderful music, this language. We are richer than other people – music-lovers and musicians are richer than other people. A very well-known writer Franz Werfel, who was very friendly with my brother-in-law, wrote in one of his books, first of all: when someone born in Prague, he is richer than other people. The second thing that I love: you have to forget everything that is bad in people and the evil: we have to forget and forgive them. When Beethoven was born, he came out of mankind. This is enough: they can’t be very bad if even a Beethoven was born.

You have probably experienced more evil than any of the rest of us. Is it easy to forget and forgive what you lived through?

I am convinced that we are born with 50 [%] good and 50 bad – everybody. And then it depends on the circumstances and our character, of course, on our temperament. Spinoza, one of the greatest philosophers, said: ‘God is everywhere; even good and bad is God’ – and he is right.

How easy was it after the war to put your bad memories behind you?

In Israel specially, another life, the climate, people, the language made me forget. Besides this: life is wonderful in my opinion. It’s our choice: we can look the good side or the bad side. I’m realistic: I know it’s evil, but I look on the good side.

Further Reading and Viewing

In these days of user-generated media Alice Herz-Sommer’s iconic status has generated an extraordinary amount of material online: a YouTube search on her name yields ‘About 7,310 results’, many of which are interviews with her. A more formal film presentation of Alice in interview can be found in the documentary Everything is a Present (2011), written and directed by Christopher Nupen (who calls her Alice Sommer Herz) and released on DVD by his Allegro Films (details at www.allegrofilms.com). She also features in Nupen’s documentary on the role of Jews in German music, We Want the Light (2003). Alice is the subject of two books. The first, Ein Garten Eden inmitten der Hölle (Droemer Knaur, Munich, 2006), is a biography written by two German authors, Reinhard Piechocki and Melissa Müller, on the basis of three years of daily telephone conversations and occasional meetings with their subject. At the launch of the English translation, A Garden of Eden in Hell (Macmillan, London, 2007), Alice joked that they now knew the details of her life better than she did – she had recently rung Pieslocki to be reminded where she had been one summer in the early 1930s. A Garden of Eden in Hell is intended for a general audience, its discussion of music is jejune and it sentimentalises its narrative – in contrast with Alice herself. It does, though, assemble the basic facts of her life and present them in a coherent discourse. A more recent book is Caroline Stoessinger’s A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Holocaust Survivor (Two Roads, London, 2012), which is part biography, part reportage, based on a series of interviews and conversations between 2006 and 2011. It uses that framework to present the karmic calm of Alice’s outlook on life, although it, too, is intended for a general readership and does not escape the charge of sentimentality. An unarguable service performed by Reinhard Piechocki was his compilation, for release in conjunction with Ein Garten Eden inmitten der Hölle, of a 78-minute CD of recordings by Alice Herz-Sommer, made privately between the 1960s and 1995: Bach (Partita in B flat major, BWV.825), Beethoven (Sonata in D major, Op. 10, No. 3: Largo), Chopin (Études, Op. 10, Nos, 2, 4 and 9, and Op. 25, Nos. 2 and 9), Debussy (Images, Book I, No. 1, and Book II, Nos. 5 and 6; L’isle joyeuse), Smetana (Czech Dances, Vol. 2, Nos. 1–3) and Schubert (Sonata in B flat major, D.960), preceded by a spoken introduction from Alice herself. This disc will not win prizes for the quality of the recorded sound – the piano is often out of tune, and in some birdsong offers unexpected counterpoint – but it reveals music-making of the very highest order. The only release (so far!) on a label called AHS Records, it can be obtained from Reinhard Piechocki, via his publishers.


  1. […] Those of us who walked through the streets of London’s Belsize Park/Swiss Cottage neighbourhood could hear her playing every day. She was an institution and her long life meant that she kept memories alive. These memories have now become history, offering both opportunities and difficulties. No longer can one call upon first hand experience – but often looking beyond personal recollection, it’s possible to find deeper truths and more profound motivations. Her passing closes a lengthy chapter. How telling that the oldest Holocaust survivor – as the press has been calling her – was a musician and puts music down to both her survival and her long life. Who knows – probably it was her optimism – and optimism, like love, is a gift as rare as absolute pitch and a photographic memory. Martin Anderson speaks with Alice Herz-Sommer […]

  2. I recently saw an interview of her done by Maria Garzon, another,younger pianist. Alice spoke movingly and with great good humour about Ullmann, and other piano music. An amazingly resilient woman, clearly, and a link to a lost generation of musicians. Thanks for devoting so much space to her, Martin