RIP. Alice Herz-Sommer

RIP Alice Herz-Sommer 

World’s oldest known holocaust survivor dies aged 110 in London, 23 Feb
Alice playing piano

The Piano Woman – Alice Herz-Sommer

She started playing when she was five. Her mother

was a friend of Gustav Mahler and she knew Franz Kafka

before she knew Terezín, an old Austrian fortress in Bohemia.

Alice “is 103 and cannot quite believe her luck.

Her daily routine still involves playing the piano

from 10 am to 1 . . . She begins by playing a Bach prelude

before working her way through the repertoire

– Schubert, Beethoven and so on.”


Gavrilo Princip lived in cell No 1,

the assassin who detonated World War 1

and over eight million lives cut,

he died from TB in the spring of 1918.

In the follow-up war, the Gestapo took control,

made the Small Fortress (kleine Festung) into a prison

and the Main Fortress (grosse Festung,

became Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto.


Entering the Royal Court we are given books

from the commandant’s extensive library,

he loves Shakespeare, but I’m handed Sophocles’

Women of Trachis – Deianeira, worried sick

about her philandering Heracles, begins:

There is an ancient proverb people tell

that none can judge the life of any man

for good or bad until that man is dead.


The town square was fenced off, a commodious circus tent

erected for a 1,000 Jews to carve boxes and coffins,

blind prisoners split mica, thinner, thinner

each slice a preservation against deportation,

others sprayed military uniforms with white dye

for the eastern front. A bank opened, camp money

was printed to pay for labour in the ghetto factories

exchanged at the ghetto cafe or in the ghetto shops.

Before representatives from the Danish Government

and the Red Cross visited in June 1944

the place was spring-cleaned, lawns laid, borders dug

paths weeded and whitewashed, a music pavilion erected

in the square and a playground built in Stadt Park

even a monument was erected in this Potemkin village.

One visitor described being greeted by a Jewish elder

in black suit and top hat on a sunny day.


An elderly man sells balloons, sunshine hits

the synagogue, school (closed for the holidays),

and in front of the café the Ghetto Swingers play illegal jazz,

courting couples pack the benches, children play

in a brook beneath trees in this model ghetto.

The guests smelt baking bread, saw fresh vegetables

being delivered and heard the workers singing

all cued by boys who ran ahead of the officials


into the welcome concert, music lathered to conceal.

The ghetto put on drama and music performances

from four orchestras, various chamber groups and jazz ensembles.

The people ecreated poetry and art, were even allowed to worship.

They organised lectures on a range of topics including

the Jews of Babylon, the theory of relativity,

and even German humour. Possession of medicine

or tobacco was punishable by hard labour or death.


Communication with a Gentile was verboten.

Alice, her husband and her son were sent there to Theresienstadt.

She says, “We had to play music because the Red Cross came

and the Germans were trying to show what a good life we had.

It was our luck, actually. Even so, hundreds and hundreds

were dying around us every day. It was a hard time.”

Alice lived on black water coffee for breakfast,

white water soup for lunch, black water soup for dinner.


“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.”

“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.”


“I was sitting for hours, day and night, and practiced

and worked on it. Chopin I played very often.

Actually, they saved my life, the études by Chopin.”

We have seen it done. Roman Polanski shows a German officer

listening to a chronically malnourished and shivering Szpilman

who struggles through Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor, (a form he invented),

though in his memoir Szpilman played the Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor,

heard at the beginning of the film, perhaps lacking the drama for that scene.


Sommer’s son Raphael sang his young tongue for the visitors

in Hans Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibár. Out of 15,000 children

Raphael was one of around 100 to survive.

One of Germany’s most famous actors and directors,

Kurt Gerron, a Jew, directed a film of the theatrical day

completed in early September called ‘The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews’.

The documentary was a drama; the day had been rehearsed

and all the lines prepared.


We sit cross-legged on the floor, the erudite Commandant,

SS Colonel Karl Rahm discusses making it real,

striding past, his black leather boots shine in the spotlights,

he strides across the runnel of water trickling across the stage

and I feel his authority; an actor recites, ‘Our nightmares have happened’.

In Prague I saw the pictures drawn by murdered children

and first heard of this place, they have never flown away –

four windows and a door with stick figures in the garden


incubating bright petals, sutured to a particular past

we believed in. Artist and art teacher

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis taught the kids,

and hid thousands of drawings in two suitcases

before being sent to Auschwitz to be gassed.

German reverses in autumn left the camp in disarray

and the Council of Elders unable to prevent 24,000

inmates being sent to Auschwitz and gassed.


Rafael Schächter conducted Verdi’s Requiem with full choir
and professional soloists, in a hall packed with both SS and Jews.
He said it was the greatest challenge in his career.
Schächter, the soloists, the choir and orchestra were all
sent to Auschwitz soon afterwards. After shooting most of the cast,
and Kurt Gerron himself, were sent to Auschwitz and murdered.
The film was never released, but sections used for propaganda,
the only segments to have survived.

The transport of October the 16th was loaded

with musicians from the welcome concert:

Karel Ancerl’s string orchestra, the Ghetto Swingers,

Gideon Klein and the composer Viktor Ullmann.

He composed twenty works inside, including an opera,

Der Kaiser von Atlantis, permission for its performance

withdrawn during rehearsals,

Karl probably sensed allegory.


Victor’s final diary entry reads:

Here, where one has to overcome matter through form

just to get through another day

and where everything of an artistic nature

is in total opposition to the whole environment; . . .

there is no point in stressing that

it was impossible to play the piano in Theresienstadt

as long as there were no instruments.


Adolf Eichmann visited in March 45 to check conditions

before the next inspection scheduled for April. By then,

it had become shabby, most able-bodied Jews

had been sent. Eichmann ordered the town spruced up,

and the ghetto passed this second inspection with a good report,

even as Typhus was infecting from survivors of the eastern camps.

In May, the Nazis handed the ghetto over to the Red Cross

with masses dying in freedom, in an epidemic, and without music.

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