Alice Herz-Sommer, Oldest Holocaust Survivor: How Music Gave Hope During WWII

‘Practise the Chopin Études, they will save you.’

Life gave me the talent to play the piano and to inspire happiness in people through music; and I am just as grateful that it gave me a love of music. Music makes us humans rich. It is the revelation of the divine. It takes us to paradise.

Since my childhood music has been my real home. It provided me with security when I had to confront my first inner torments and through it I found support, when death robbed me of my loved ones. Its meditative power provided me with the determination to cope first with the fascist and then the communist dictatorships that declared me and others like me subhuman.

When, in the early summer of 1942, my seventy-two-year-old mother was issued with a deportation order and I had to go with her to the assembly point and say goodbye to her for the last time, I was out of my mind. How was it possible to tear an old lady away from her world with nothing more than a rucksack on her back and send her to a concentration camp? Even to this day I can clearly hear the inner voice that spoke to me: ‘Practise the Chopin Études, they will save you.’

Although Chopin’s Études are among the most difficult pieces ever written for the repertoire, I began to learn them immediately. They were my refuge but they made huge demands on my discipline and strength of will, which I had not experienced before. In my despair I had chosen an ambitious project, but they provided me with hours of freedom in a world which was collapsing about me.

Every day for a year, I knuckled down to this seemingly insuperable task and mastered all twenty-four of them before I myself, my husband and our then six-year-old son were also deported to Theresienstadt. There I gave more than a hundred concerts for my fellow prisoners, and at more than twenty of them I played the Études.

Music gave heart to many of the prisoners, if only temporarily. In retrospect I am certain that it was music that strengthened my innate optimism and saved my life and that of my son. It was our food; and it protected us from hate and literally nourished our souls. There in the darkest corners of the world it removed our fears and reminded us of the beauty around us. Music supported me as I turned my back on my home town of Prague for the last time and had to think of learning new languages, and I am thankful for it too, at my great age, when I spend many hours alone. It hardly matters where I am: I am not prone to loneliness. Although I no longer travel any more, through music I can see the world.

Music has been a great friend to me. Even today I receive visits almost every day. Many friends come regularly and every Saturday afternoon I receive a call from Zdenka Fantlová, who was in Theresienstadt at the same time as I was. And every Sunday afternoon at around five the cellist Anita Lasker-Walfisch pays a call; she only survived Auschwitz because she played in a girls’ orchestra for Josef Mengele and the SS. Above all I thank music for the privilege, even today, at the age of 103, for the ability to speak to and laugh with people all over the world. That makes me happy.

A few years ago the love of music brought me into contact with Reinhard Piechocki, himself a great music-lover. He rang me from his home on the island of Rügen and asked me a question no one had asked me since my liberation from Theresienstadt: where had I found the strength and inspiration to perform Frédéric Chopin’s uncommonly difficult 24 Études in the concentration camp? I told him that playing them was – albeit transitory – liberation. He visited me in London soon afterwards and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. We became close, we laughed together, and since then we talk almost daily on the telephone. We don’t just talk about music; we talk about God, philosophy and the world.

When he suggested writing a book about my life, I immediately said no thank you. My life has been marked by its highs and lows like other people but to have a life that is longer than most people’s is, I feel, both a test and a gift. Becoming old is a difficult business but in my heart I am happier today than I was when I was young. Young people expect great things from life. As an old person one is very often aware, however, of what is worthwhile, and what one can do without. ‘Humour is the path to good sense. It helps you understand the nonsense of the past with a smile on your face, and that liberates you,’ wrote my brother-in-law, the philosopher Felix Weltsch, about the humour of his close friend Franz Kafka. ‘It is an antibiotic against hatred.’ I agree with Weltsch and Kafka that humour is always self-critical. When Kafka was with us children he, too, was like a boisterous child and told fabulous stories.

Reinhard Piechocki finally managed to convince me to agree to this book, because it was to be a book about the power of music and love, a book about a person for whom others were more important than she was to herself. As it came together two other people played important roles: Reinhard’s wife Katrin Eigenfeld and Melissa Müller. I found an affinity with Katrin, who in the past few years has fed entire drafts of chapters into her computer, not only because of her modesty but also for the courage with which she fought the consequences of Stalinism in East Germany. The author Melissa Müller, who co-wrote this book with Reinhard, inspired me from the first because of her feeling for language and her clever and intuitive way of asking questions.

People are often breathlessly pursuing their next goal in life without looking around them. They become attached to material things, and – to quote Felix Weltsch once again – are incapable of circumspection or far-sightedness, because they lack the necessary material detachment. Detachment from possessions also creates detachment in oneself, and teaches us the modesty that makes it a pleasure for us humans to live and work together. In my opinion people take themselves too seriously as a rule. Culture and politics both suffer from this, so does humanity. Modesty brings happiness. Is that not so? Whoever is ready to understand this should absorb the greatness and dignity of a work by Beethoven or Bach. I have never learned to give up hope.

From Alice’s Piano by Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki. Copyright © 2012 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Popular in the Community