Obiter Dictum

Notes on the adventure of life.

Interview with Alice Herz-Sommer (109) – world’s oldest Holocaust survivor.

with 3 comments

Alice Sommer1_Jillian Edelstein copy

Alice is about to turn 107 when I meet her on a crisp-blue autumn afternoon in November 2010. She still lives alone, in a ground-floor apartment on a broad leafy street in north London. She always leaves her front door ajar so she doesn’t have to get up every time someone comes to visit, and as I will learn, they come from all over to visit Alice.

I knock loudly to announce my arrival. A high–pitched voice calls for me to enter. A gentle push of the door reveals a dimly lit room, my eyes strain to separate shape from shadow. Slowly they appear: an upright piano against the wall and, in a chair just beyond its reach, Alice, wearing pearls, a pleated grey knee-length skirt… and faded blue Converse All Star sneakers.

Playing the piano saved Alice’s life. Born in Prague on November 26th, 1903 of Jewish parents, she was a celebrated concert pianist who performed all over Europe until, in 1943, she was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, together with her husband and six-year-old son.

Alice survived. Her husband didn’t. His last words to her before he was shipped off to Auschwitz: “Promise me that whatever happens, you will do nothing voluntarily.” Many women who were given the chance to follow their husbands and did were sent to their deaths.

During the two years of her incarceration, Alice performed more than one hundred concerts for her captors. “Sometimes the conditions were unbearable: no heating, our fingers cramped-up from the cold; we hadn’t eaten for days; it was difficult to concentrate. But I had to play; I had to stay alive – for my son,” she says. “Music saved my life,” she will tell me ten times over during our afternoon together. And that of her son, it seems, who also survived the camp.

Alice doesn’t talk about the horrors of the concentration camp. In unspoken agreement, she doesn’t volunteer and I don’t ask. It seems sacrilegious to the spirited woman before me to rake up the memory. ‘I don’t hate,’ Alice shrugs. ‘…not even the Germans. There is bad and good in us all. Even terrible things can result in miracles,’ she smiles.

Life is music.

To Alice, life is music. Her mother and father were musicians, as were two of her four siblings. Her son, Raphael Sommer, would also become a renowned cellist. ‘I don’t know how musical genes are passed on from one generation to the next; it’s a miracle!’ One conviction Alice never doubts: ‘The life of a musician is a privilege, of that I am sure. Every day we are full of the most beautiful thing ever created by mankind: music. What happens in the world around one is not so important. To be filled with this incredible beauty, yes, that is a privilege.’

Alice still plays the piano two hours every day, from ten to twelve. ‘My neighbours all say: it must be ten ‘o clock, Alice is playing!’ she chuckles. She holds up two gnarled forefingers to my face. ‘Now that my hands don’t work so well anymore, I play with these two fingers. But it’s ok, it works!’

The phone rings, the first of many times that afternoon. I get up to bring it to Alice. Always it is the same: people, mostly journalists and students, who want to meet her. A little shakily, Alice lifts the receiver:

‘Yes…?’ [silence]
‘You are calling from where…? Ah, Berlin!’ she nods a smile in recognition.
‘Of course you may come! Call when you are in London.’
‘…two ‘o clock,’ she finishes, lowering the handset back onto its hook as a distant voice continues to bubble into the room.

‘Everybody wants to meet you,’ I tell Alice. ‘You are famous!’

She chuckles. ‘Yes. Yesterday there were five, the day before ten – all students, sitting on the floor to ask questions,’ her arm sweeps across the room. ‘I love meeting people! They are so interesting.’

‘Do you have time to stay?’ she asks suddenly.

I glance out the window at the fading light and at the luminous 15:35 on Alice’s bedside alarm clock. Alone in an unfamiliar city, I mumble something about leaving before dark. ‘I want to watch a film with you,’ Alice says, ignoring my remark. ‘It’s about my life.’

With those four words she wipes the relevance of my logistical concerns off the table.

Alice points: ‘The DVD, there – put it in the player! And biscuits, get some biscuits.’ She waves me to the tiny kitchen. Finally, I pull my seat up beside hers as the hesitant sound of the first piano notes drift into the room. ‘Put it louder!’ Alice prods as the opening credits roll across the screen.

One hour and six shortbread biscuits long, we watch Alice’s life roll across the screen in Everything is a Present – the documentary by Christopher Nupen in which a 98-year-old Alice speaks of her childhood, her mother, Theresienstadt, love, the beauty of nature and the influence of music on her life.

Always it comes back to music.

As we watch the film and crystal clear notes fill the room, Alice closes her eyes, her fingers playing each note in the air, lost to her music.

For a heartbeat, time stops.

I watch Alice, oblivious to my presence, playing Bach, the television flickering images into the semi-darkness. I remember her words: “A musician is full of the beauty of music. To be filled with this beauty is a privilege.”

Optimism.

For Alice, optimism is a way of life. Asked what she thinks the secret to a long, happy life is, she answers: “Optimism, of course!” laughter rising from her belly as if I have asked the silliest question in the world.

‘I have always tried to fill my life with beauty. The beauty of music, the beauty of nature, the beauty of love – the love between a mother and her child – those things are extraordinary,’ says Alice, opening her eyes.

To illustrate her point, she tells of her twin sister, Marianne, who died at the age of seventy. ‘My sister was always waiting for catastrophe, always,’ she rolls her eyes. ‘Of this I am sure: if you are a pessimist, the whole organism is in tension all the time. It is not good for one’s health,’ she shakes her head and prods me to take another biscuit.

The film ends. I ask Alice what the biggest lessons are that she learned during her long life. For a second she is silent, eyes closed in contemplation. Suddenly she turns to look me straight in the eye: ‘To learn. Learn, learn, learn – that is the basis. And to be thankful for everything: for being not hungry, for seeing the sun, for a smile, for a kind word from somebody.’

With that she learns closer and cups my cheek. ‘Life is beautiful! Beautiful, I tell you!’ she laughs. I join in her laughter, wondering how I will ever do justice to the legacy of this amazing woman.

Alice Sommer
DOB: 26.11.1903
Date of interview: 16.11.2010
Location: London, UK

16112010_Alice Sommer

Written by sabineclappaert

November 27, 2012 at 11:52 am

3 Responses

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  1. machtig mooi en poëtisch, Sabine!!

    Suana Verelst

    February 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm

  2. Amazing interview. I saw the documentary movie ‘7 lights ‘ with Alice and her personality remained unforgotten for me. And now I see your beautiful interview and when looking at the map I see that Alice lives 4 tube stations away from me. I only wonder how did you contact this wonderful lady?

    andreakmetova

    June 12, 2013 at 6:01 pm

  3. Thank you for posting this interview!

    I’m a piano teacher in the United States and my family and I have been captivated by Alice’s story. What an amazing lady! Her love for life and music is just incredible.

    My piano students and I would like to send her a card and some letters for her 110th birthday. Do you happen to know her mailing address or who I can contact for that information? Thank you in advance!

    Melissa Q.
    melissa@onQpiano.com

    Melissa

    September 21, 2013 at 2:42 pm


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