Nation & World News

Oldest-Known Holocaust Survivor Dies; Pianist Was 110

By Mark Memmott on February 24th, 2014

There are many remarkable things to say about Alice Herz-Sommer, who until her death in London on Sunday was thought to be the world’s oldest survivor of the Nazi Holocaust.

To start with, there’s her age: Herz-Sommer was 110.

Then there are the people she knew, including writer Franz Kafka — who died in 1924.

But what has particularly touched us as we’ve read about her this morning is her amazingly positive view of the world.

Bear in mind: In 1943, Herz-Sommer and her husband, Leopold Sommer, and their son, Raphael, were sent from Prague to a Nazi camp for Jews in the Czech city of Terezin. According to The Guardian, “she never saw her husband again after he was moved to Auschwitz in 1944 and many in her extended family and most of the friends she had grown up with were also lost in the Holocaust.”

According to the BBC, Herz-Sommer and her son “were among fewer than 20,000 people who were freed when Terezin was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945. An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent there and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were transported on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most were killed.”

Still, when the Guardian spoke with her in 2006, Herz-Sommer had this to say:

“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.”

Film director Malcolm Clark and producer Nick Reed — whose Oscar-nominated documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life tells the story of the concerts that Herz-Sommer, a pianist, and others performed in concentration camps to lift the spirits of prisoners — say in a statement that:

“Even as her energy slowly diminished, her bright spirit never faltered. Her life force was so strong, we could never imagine her not being around. We can all learn so much from this most amazing woman.”

On the film’s website, Herz-Sommer was quoted about the role music played in her life:

“She speaks with great pride and passion of playing more than 100 concerts inside the concentration camp and she likens that experience, both for the performers and their imprisoned audience as being close to the divine. Alice is unequivocal in stating that music preserved her sanity and her life — while bringing hope into the lives of countless others. To this day Alice never tires of saying ‘music saved my life and music saves me still.’ ”

The film’s creators added that:

“Despite all that has befallen her, Alice insists that she has never, ever hated the Nazis, and she never will. Some see in her tolerance and compassion a secular saint who has been blessed with the gift of forgiveness, but Alice is far more pragmatic — she has seen enough in her life to know all too well that hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated.”

According to the Guardian, after the war Herz-Sommer “went to Israel in 1949 with her sisters and taught music in Tel Aviv before moving to London at the prompting of her son, who had grown up to become a concert cellist but who died suddenly in 2001 while on tour.”

In the 2006 interview, she shared with the Guardian her secret to a long life:

“My temperament. This optimism and this discipline. Punctually, at 10 a.m., I am sitting there at the piano, with everything in order around me. For 30 years, I have eaten the same — fish or chicken. Good soup, and this is all. I don’t drink — not tea, not coffee, not alcohol. Hot water. I walk a lot with terrible pains, but after 20 minutes it is much better. Sitting or lying is not good.”

All Things Considered is due to have more about Herz-Sommer and her life later today. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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