Alice Herz-Sommer

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Alice Herz-Sommer
Alice Herz-Sommer.png
Background information
Born(1903-11-26)26 November 1903
Prague, Kingdom of Bohemia, Austria-Hungary
Died23 February 2014(2014-02-23) (aged 110)
London, England
GenresClassical music
Occupation(s)Pianist, music teacher

Alice Herz-Sommer, also known as Alice Herz (26 November 1903 – 23 February 2014), was a Prague-born Jewish classical pianist, music teacher, and supercentenarian who survived Theresienstadt concentration camp. She lived for 40 years in Israel, before migrating to London in 1986, where she resided until her death, and at the age of 110 was the world's oldest known Holocaust survivor until Yisrael Kristal was recognized as such.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Aliza Herz was born in Prague, in the Kingdom of Bohemia (a part of Austria-Hungary), to Friedrich and Sofie "Gigi" Herz. Herz's family was part of the small German-speaking minority of assimilated Jews in Prague, although Herz stated that she also spoke Czech. Her father was a merchant and her mother was highly educated and moved in circles of well-known writers. She had two sisters, including a twin sister, Mariana, and two brothers. Her parents ran a cultural salon where Herz, as a child, met writers including Franz Kafka and Franz Werfel, composers including Gustav Mahler, philosophers, and intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud. Herz once noted that "Kafka was a slightly strange man. He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories."[3][4][5] Herz's sister Irma was married to Felix Weltsch, who was a prominent German-language Jewish philosopher, journalist, librarian, and Zionist who later worked as a librarian in Jerusalem after his emigration from Austria.

Herz's older sister Irma taught her how to play the piano, which she studied diligently, and the Austrian-Jewish pianist Artur Schnabel, a friend of the family, encouraged her to pursue a career as a classical musician, a choice she decided to make.[3] She went on to study under the Czech pianist Václav Štěpán (1889-1944) and at the Prague German Conservatory of Music, where she was the youngest pupil.[5] Herz married the businessman and amateur musician Leopold Sommer in 1931; the couple had a son, Stephan (later known as Raphael,[6] 1937–2001).[7] She began giving concerts and making a name for herself across Europe until the Nazis took over Prague, as they did not allow Jews to perform in public, join music competitions or teach non-Jewish pupils.[5]

Second World War[edit]

After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, most of Herz-Sommer's family and friends emigrated to Palestine via Romania, including Max Brod and brother-in-law Felix Weltsch, but Herz-Sommer stayed in Prague to care for her ill mother, Sofie, aged 72; both women were arrested and Sofie Herz was murdered in a concentration camp.[5] In July 1943 Herz was sent to Theresienstadt, where she played in more than 100 concerts along with other musicians, for prisoners and guards.[3] She commented of her performances in the camp:

We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year. The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn't come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.[5]

Herz-Sommer was billeted with her son during their time at the camp; he was one of only a few children to survive Theresienstadt. Her husband died of typhus in Dachau, six weeks before the camp was liberated.[4][7]

Later life[edit]

Pianists Alice Herz-Sommer (left) and Luiza Borac 2010 in London

After the Soviet liberation of Theresienstadt in 1945, she and Raphael returned to Prague, and in March 1949 emigrated to Israel, to be reunited with some of her surviving family, including her twin sister, Mariana.[5] Herz lived in Israel for almost 40 years, working as a music teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, until emigrating to London in 1986.

In London Herz-Sommer lived close to her family in a one-room flat in Belsize Park, visited almost daily by her closest friends, her grandson Ariel Sommer, and daughter-in-law Genevieve Sommer. She practised playing the piano three hours a day until the end of her life. She stated that optimism was the key to her life:

I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.[5]

She also declared a firm belief in the power of music: "Music saved my life and music saves me still... I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion."[8]

Her son Raphael, an accomplished cellist and conductor, died in 2001, aged 64, of an aneurysm in Israel at the end of a concert tour. He was survived by his wife and two sons.[4][7]

Alice Herz-Sommer died in hospital in London on 23 February 2014, aged 110, after being admitted two days previously.[9][10] Her death was confirmed by her grandson, Ariel Sommer.[11] She is buried at the St Pancras and Islington Cemetery in East Finchley, north London.[12]


External video
video icon Learning to play the piano, Alice Herz-Sommer interview, 4:58, 1st of 12 parts, 1 August 2017

A Century of Wisdom: Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor (2012), with an introduction by President Václav Havel, was written about her life and translated in 26 countries.[13][14][15] Herz-Sommer was the subject of A Garden of Eden in Hell, first published in German in 2005 (reprinted in English as Alice's Piano).[16]

The BBC TV documentary Alice Sommer Herz at 106: Everything Is a Present, written and produced by Christopher Nupen, was first broadcast on BBC Four.[17] She was featured on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour in 2004[18] and in The Times,[19] and The Guardian.[20] She was one of two subjects featured in the film Refuge in Music.[21]

The Lady in Number 6, filmed when Herz was 109, documents her life and won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.[22][23][24]

The song "Dancing Under the Gallows", by Chris While and Julie Matthews, from their 2014 album Who We Are, celebrates the life of Alice Herz-Sommer.[25]


  1. ^ Tom Gross, "The Lady In Number 6", 12 November 2010; accessed 13 November 2014.
  2. ^ Obituary, The New York Times, 28 February 2014; accessed 13 November 2014.
  3. ^ a b c "The Lady in Number 6 takes refuge in music", The Gazette, 31 January 2014.
  4. ^ a b c "The Woman Who Remembers Mahler" by Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 26 November 2013
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "Oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, dies at 110", Haaretz, 23 February 2014; accessed 13 November 2014.
  6. ^ "Alice Herz-Sommer, said to be oldest Holocaust survivor, dies at age 110 in London". New York Daily News. 23 February 2014. Retrieved 24 February 2014.
  7. ^ a b c Greenberg, Louise. "The Guardian obituary for Raphael Sommer, "Cellist whose musical flair survived a concentration camp"". The Guardian. 28 November 2001. Retrieved 1 November 2014.
  8. ^ News agencies. "Oldest Holocaust survivor dies aged 110". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 24 February 2014.
  9. ^ "Family: Alice Herz-Sommer, Believed World's Oldest Holocaust Survivor, Dies at Age 110", 23 February 2014, ABC News
  10. ^ CTV News, "Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be world's oldest Holocaust survivor, dies at 110"; 23 February 2014.
  11. ^ "World's Oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, dies in UK". New Straits Times. 24 February 2014. Archived from the original on 2 March 2014. Retrieved 24 February 2014.
  12. ^ "St Pancras Cemetery".
  13. ^ Stoessinger, Caroline, A Century of Wisdom: Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor, New York, Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 2012.
  14. ^ Stoessinger, Caroline. "Never Too Old: Words of Wisdom from Alice Herz-Sommer, The World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor", Huffington Post, 19 April 2012.
  15. ^ Stoessinger, Caroline. "If Only Dad Had Read This", Huffington Post, 16 June 2012.
  16. ^ Muller, Melissa and Reinhard Piechocki, A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (2007), Macmillan; illustrated edition ISBN 978-0-230-52802-4.
  17. ^ Alice Sommer Herz at 106: Everything Is a Present, BBC documentary by Christopher Nupen
  18. ^ "Surviving the Holocaust" BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour programme. 27 January 2006.
  19. ^ "A Life in the Day: Alice Herz-Sommer" The Sunday Times, 27 January 2008
  20. ^ Guardian video (3 mins) "Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer playing piano", 13 June 2010.
  21. ^ Refuge in Music – Terezin | Theresienstadt, A Film by Dorothee Binding and Benedict Mirow. Deutsche Grammophon, 25 October 2013; accessed 23 February 2014.
  22. ^ "Oldest known Holocaust survivor dies aged 110", The Guardian, 23 February 2014.
  23. ^ The Lady In Number 6, website
  24. ^ "Documentary on oldest Holocaust survivor wins Oscar, a week after her death". Haaretz. 3 March 2014.
  25. ^ "Chris While and Julie Matthews mark 20th anniversary with new album". York Press. Retrieved 13 November 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Caroline Stoessinger (2012) A Century of Wisdom. Random House
  • Muller, Melissa and Piechocki, Reinhard (2007) A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer. (First published in German under this title) Macmillan. Published in English as Alice's Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer.

External links[edit]