Alice Herz-Sommer, 1903 - 2014

Even in a time where living longer is becoming more commonplace, to hear of someone living to the grand age of 110 is extraordinary. When you also consider, however, that the same person survived the Holocaust, it becomes almost unbelievable.

Alice Herz was born in Prague in 1903. Her mother was a friend of the composer Gustav Mahler and Alice used to speak of "Uncle Franz," the renowned author Franz Kafka. At the age of six she began to play the piano, her life's love, and was already quite an accomplished pianist by her teens. In 1931 she married a fellow musician, violinist Leopold Sommer, and they had a son, Raphael, who later became a concert cellist.
The family's happy times were not to last, however. In 1943 the order came that they would be relocated to Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech), one of the most extraordinary establishments in the Nazis' concentration camp system. Not quite ghetto, not quite concentration camp, Theresienstadt was a feeder camp for bigger camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, and starvation and illness both caused mass deaths in the camp. Almost 35,000 prisoners died in Theresienstadt, including Alice's mother. On the other hand, prisoners could wear their own clothes and take part in plays and concerts. It was eventually also used as a propaganda camp when the Red Cross requested to see how the Jews were being treated under the Nazis. Alice performed over 100 concerts in the camp, playing many pieces from memory.
In 1944, Alice and Leopold were separated, the latter sent to Auschwitz and later Dachau, where he perished. Alice's son, Raphael, remained with her in the camp, a part of the children's opera, and both survived the war. Alice moved to Israel, becoming a successful pianist and piano tutor, but moved to London to be with her son in 1985. Raphael died in 2001, at the age of 64.

Despite all that she had suffered, Alice was never bitter about her experiences. Instead, she remained an optimist to her last day, driven by her passion for music and all the joys it brought her. In the documentary 'The Lady in Number Six', which is now Oscar-nominated, Alice expressed, "Music is God...Music is a dream!" She also described life as "beautiful" and how she was the only one in her building that always laughed.
We can all learn a lot from Alice Herz-Sommer. Whether or not you are devoted to music, her enthusiasm, optimism and sense of hope shine through and are all universal ways of thinking that we should all take on board. For to have lived through as dark a time as the Holocaust, losing family and friends simply for being Jewish, and to retain hope and happiness for the rest of her life, Alice was simply remarkable.
I never got the chance to meet Alice, but would have loved to. Living in London, she was never too far away, and it is regrettable that I will never have that opportunity. She is, however, yet another figure of inspiration, part of the bigger picture that keeps me motivated in Holocaust education and awareness.

At the Oscars this Sunday, I can only hope that 'The Lady in Number Six' wins the award for Best Documentary Short. It would bring Alice's story to a wider audience, and I feel it would be an appropriate posthumous tribute to an incredible woman.
You can watch a short preview of the documentary below.