Alice Herz-Sommer is, I think, the most optimistic person I have ever met. She sits in her armchair in her single-roomed north London flat beaming at the beauty of life and treasuring the moment. She is 108 and cannot quite believe her luck. This is not wholly what you expect as you read the summary of her life. It is true that she is an immensely gifted pianist, who has found great sustenance from her art and who, even now, practices for three hours a day. But she has also experienced more unhappiness than any optimist has a right to expect.
With her Jewish background, she endured the miseries of the Prague ghetto, spent two years in the Theresienstadt (Terezín) concentration camp, where nearly 35,000 prisoners perished. Her husband was moved to Auschwitz in 1944: she never saw him again. She lost many in her extended family and most of the friends she had grown up with.
"A Garden Of Eden In Hell" published by Pan Macmillan.
All this she tells, with a near-perfect recall of dates, names and places. If she was ever bitter about the hardships she endured or the losses she suffered, it is all wiped clean. Instead, there is an almost evangelical zeal in communicating the necessity of optimism.
She lives on her own in Belsize Park. Until she was 97 she went swimming every day at the pool in nearby Swiss Cottage. Her daily routine still involves playing the piano from 10 am to 1pm. Her musical memory is, she says, still excellent. She begins by playing a Bach prelude before working her way through the repertoire — Schubert, Beethoven and so on — which she has always played. Twice a month she plays with a violinist and occasionally trios with her daughter in law, a cellist.
Her story begins in 1903, the year she was born in German-speaking Prague, then still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Her mother came from a musical Moravian family and was a childhood friend of Gustav Mahler. Sommer remembers hearing the first performance of Mahler's second symphony in Prague when she was about eight. "Still now when I listen to Mahler my mother is next to me," she says.
She started playing the piano when she was five and was soon taking lessons with a distinguished pupil of Liszt, Conrad Ansorge ("as a pianist, extraordinary, as a teacher, not so good"). Her sister was simultaneously taking lessons from Alexander Zemlinsky, under whom she sang in a performance of Mahler's eighth symphony. By her mid-teens, Alice was giving lessons and touring as a pianist, playing Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Suk and Smetana.
She met her husband to be, also a musician, in 1931 and married him two weeks later. "He spoke five languages. He was an extremely gifted man, extremely gifted," she says. Their only son, Raphael, who went on to be a concert cellist, was born in 1937.
Everything in this busy, fulfilled and creative life changed in March 1939, when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia. "This was a hard time for Jews," she says with some understatement. "Nothing was allowed. The food was very poor. We could only buy things for half an hour in the afternoon. We had to give away all our belongings. We were poor, we had nothing. For me the greatest punishment was having to wear the yellow star, here on the left side. When I went on the street my best non-Jewish friends didn't dare to look at me. I didn't know if I should go and speak with them. It was a very, very, very hard time, this I must say."
Most Jews were sent to a ghetto, but for a while Sommer, her husband and her son were allowed to stay in their own flat. "Above us was living a Nazi, and beneath us a Nazi." Then, in 1943, the three were sent to Theresienstadt.
And at the last moment the Nazi came — his name was Hermann — with his wife. They bought biscuits and he said, 'Mrs Sommer, I hope you come back with your family. I don't know what to say to you. I enjoyed your playing - such wonderful things, I thank you.' The Nazi was the most human of all."
"When you know history — wars and wars and wars ... It begins with this: that we are born half-good and half-bad - everybody, everybody. And there are situations where the bad comes out and situations where the good comes out. This is the reason why people invented religion, I believe."
The following day the three of them spent an hour and a half on the train to Theresienstadt — bizarrely, a "show camp" for Red Cross inspections and simultaneously a staging post for tens of thousands of inmates who were shipped off to their deaths in other camps. The Red Cross inspectors noted the cultural activity: the inmates included numerous artists, writers and musicians.
They lived in barracks for two years; they were given black water coffee for breakfast, white water soup for lunch and, in the evening, black water soup. "We lost weight. People ask, 'How could you make music?' We were so weak. But music was special, like a spell, I would say. I gave more than 150 concerts there. There were excellent musicians there, really excellent. Violinists, cellists, singers, conductors and composers."
The conductor Rafael Schaechter recruited 150 singers and conducted 15 or more performances of the Verdi Requiem, some of which Sommer sang in. And she gave her own concerts. "I played twice, three times a week. The audience were mostly old people - very ill people and unhappy people - but they came to our concerts and this was their food."
As a child Sommer's cellist son Raphael took part in performances of Hans Krasa's children's opera Brundibár, given as part of the Nazis' attempts to show how "normal" life was in Theresienstadt. Out of 15,000 children who were sent to the camp, he was one of only 130 to survive the war.
"In 1944, my husband was among thousands who were sent away. His last words to me were, 'You mustn't do anything voluntarily.' I didn't understand what was in his mind. This was on Monday. Three days afterwards, again thousands were sent away, mothers and children of the men who had already been sent. In the second transport the women went voluntarily because they wanted to meet their husbands. They never met them. So my husband saved our lives. He was sent to Auschwitz first and then sent to work in Dachau and, six weeks before the end of the war, he died from typhus. I brought up my son alone."
Does she think she had a particular toughness? "Yah, 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. The world is wonderful, it's full of beauty and full of miracles. Our brain, the memory, how does it work? Not to speak of art and music ... It is a miracle."
On May 9 1945, the Russian army arrived to relieve the camp. "We knew already that Hitler had lost the war so we expected to be relieved. I remember my brother took his violin and went immediately to Prague. I stayed in the camp for a month or two because I was told there was an epidemic. When I came back home it was very, very painful because nobody else came back. The whole family of my husband, several members of my family, all my friends, all the friends of my family, nobody came back. It was a hard time."
In 1949, she went to Israel with her sisters and taught music in Tel Aviv. "I must say, when I moved to Israel there was not a day without political tension, but [to experience] democracy! After Hitler and Stalin, you feel what it means. You can read, speak, trust everyone. It was a beautiful life in Israel, inspiring. Musicians, scientists and writers — they all came and lectured. It was a cultural center. I was very happy."
I ask her about her feelings of identity. "My parents were not Jewish. I am not. My husband was not. We are Jewish without religion. I belong to this group because of my ancestors, of course. I understand when we are in a terrible situation we are needing hope. Religion, for me, is a symbol of hope. It helps, this hope."
Every Saturday, she plays Scrabble with another musical survivor of the camps, the cellist Anita Wallfisch, who played in the Auschwitz camp orchestra. "We don't speak about the past," says Sommer. All her family and friends are dead. "I have never met anyone of this age. Never. When I was young, somebody of 60 was regarded as an old man."
"In any case, life is beautiful, extremely beautiful. And when you are old you appreciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything."
By Alan Rusbridger
INTERVIEW: ALICE HERZ SOMMER & TONY ROBBINS
"Everything Is A Present: 108-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor On Beauty, Love And Conquering Hate"
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BBC PROGRAMME "HEART AND SOUL" ALICE HERZ SOMMER
Now 108 years old, concert pianist Alice Herz Sommer has led an extraordinary life. Alice and her six-year-old son Raphael were sent to the Terezin camp in June 1943, where they spent two gruesome years — but survived. Alice's gift for music saved her from despair in the camp where thousands of prisoners died. She gave many recitals there and it was music that kept her alive and fed her irrepressible optimism, which is still with her today. "For me, music is God", she says. "I always have music in my heart and no one can take that away from me." After several years in Israel, Alice now lives in London. For Heart and Soul she tells her story to Judi Herman.
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TEN VIDEOS FEATURING ALICE HERZ-SOMMER