Book Talk: Saved from the Holocaust by Music

March 12, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

Back on Nov. 26, 2010, the former Czech/Israeli pianist Alice Herz-Sommer began her day as usual, practicing a Bach invention in her small apartment in London’s Hampstead district. The Czech ambassador to Britain soon arrived to deliver a short speech (interrupted several times by Alice, then just age 107) and a brass plaque honoring her contribution to Czech culture.

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“The artist’s job is never done.” — Centenarian Alice Herz-Sommer

Her last name translates as “heart of summer,” and much spiritual and artistic warmth radiates from the story of her long life, as recounted by Caroline Stoessinger in her memoir cum biography: A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor (Spiegel & Grau). The book comes highly touted: There is a front-cover blurb by Elie Wiesel, and the forward is by the late Czech President Václav Havel.

Stoessinger is herself a concert pianist and a notable figure on the local music scene as the longtime pianist for the Tokyo Quartet, artistic director for both the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Long Island University’s Tilles Center, as well as artist in residence at John Jay College. The “accidental miracle” of meeting Alice came while assisting on a documentary about the then-103-year-old. The result of conversations over several years, the book tells the story of a woman who is “equal parts teacher and student.”

Alice (I’ll follow Stoessinger in using her first name) was born in Prague in 1903 to a well-to-do and cultured family. Her parents’ circle included composer Gustav Mahler, poet Rainer Maria Rilke and authors Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Franz Kafka. The last became “Uncle Franz” and part of the family circle. She recalls that “Kafka never knew where he belonged, was never certain of his identity” — perhaps a perfect key to the nature of the man who gave us the adjective “Kafka-esque.” Her piano studies became more serious after an audition for composer/classical pianist Artur Schnabel.

Marriage to Leopold Sommer came in 1931, then the birth of her only child, son Rafi, in 1937. In 1943 the entire family was delivered to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt (her mother disappeared there and Leopold was shipped on to die in Auschwitz). The Nazis made it a “model” camp by giving the Jewish artists a modicum of freedom for internal performances. The camp had enough musicians for four orchestras to perform simultaneously, and they even mounted Verdi’s “Requiem,” with Alice playing the piano at a few performances — as the orchestra’s string players were lost to Auschwitz. She gave more than a hundred recitals there, including Chopin’s complete études. Being limited to only one hour of practice was just another cruelty: “To not practice was unthinkable.” For Alice and many other musicians, art was salvation: “Music was our way of remembering our inner selves, our values.”

After the war, at age 45, Alice moved with Rafi to Israel about a year after the state was founded. There she threw herself into four decades of teaching piano at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. She recalls fondly seeing for the first time the 10-year-old prodigy Daniel Barenboim, who became a friend of her son — who turned into a top-ranked cellist and founder of a French music festival in Gex.

A new chapter in her life began at 83, when Alice moved to London to be near her now-London-based son and two grandsons — and became a poster-grandma for continuing education. She also survived breast cancer at this time. “She is a strong believer in formal education as a major factor in longevity,” says Stoessinger. Alice started attending London’s University of the Third Age, focusing in particular on philosophy. She became a particular admirer of the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Spinoza, the prophet of democratic values, separation of church and state, and tolerance among nations and peoples. She also likes to quote Nietzsche for his thoughts on music, among them: “Without music life would be a mistake.” For nearly 20 years, until she was 104, she attended classes three times a week.

The horrible motto over the entrance to Dachau was “Arbeit Macht Frei ” (“Work Makes You Free”), but in a wonderful way that is Alice’s own deep conviction. In a chapter on “Alice the Teacher” she says that a piano teacher’s most important lesson is merely this: “Love to work …. Instill a love of work, a love of practicing …. Love the process of learning.” Fittingly, Stoessinger has given the final chapter, “Alice Today,” an epigraph from Ecclesiastes: “The life of one that laboureth and is contented shall be made sweet.”

When Rafi died suddenly at 64 in 2001 after a fine performance in Israel, Alice’s music stopped — but, to the immense relief of her circle, only for a few weeks. A visitor asked Alice why, at 108, she spent so much time practicing. “Some days I admire myself. Not bad, I think,” she replied. “But the longer I work the more I learn that I am only a beginner …. The artist’s job is never done. It is the same with life …. As with music, I search for meaning. I practice life.”

Alice begins her days practicing Bach. It is no surprise she took to philosophy later in life since, to her, “Bach is the philosopher of music … he is the God of all the Gods of Music.” Noticed fingering a piece mentally with no piano nearby, she is asked what she is playing. “Bach, of course.” Next on the honor role is Beethoven.

She is of an optimistic bent; her twin sister Mitzi, who died nearly 20 years ago, was the pessimist. Here the pros of advanced age get the better of the cons. “Only when we are so very old do we realize the beauty of life,” she says. And don’t make the mistake of whining about aches and pains in her presence. “Complaining does not help. It just makes everyone feel bad.”

Alice’s centurion wisdom, quoting loosely from Spinoza, is this: “Things are as they are supposed to be. I am still here — never too old so long as I breathe to wonder, to learn, and, yes, to teach. Curiosity — interest in others, and, above all, music. This is life.”

Well, there’s one other thing: chicken soup.

For the last 25 years (until she recently switched to meals on wheels), Alice’s daily menu consisted of homemade chicken soup at lunch and dinner. Stoessinger includes Alice’s own full-dress recipe on page 90 — along with her family recipe for Moravian apple cake.

Closing the volume are a few pages of observations “In Alice’s Words.” Among them:

“When you love your work you are never bored. Boredom is unhealthy.”

“School is only the beginning. We can learn all our lives.”

“Stay informed. Technology is wonderful.”

And, perhaps most personally: “Music saved my life. Music is God.”