Since early childhood, music has always been a kind of prayer for 108-year-old Alice Herz-Sommer, the pianist from Prague and the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor. Gustav Mahler’s, Urlicht, “I come from God and will return to God” has been her life-long spiritual theme song. But the power of her faith would only be fully revealed after her secure world was destroyed on March 15, 1939 when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Alice could never have imagined that she would be shipped as a prisoner to Theresienstadt concentration camp to endure unspeakable hardship, nor that her husband and aging mother would perish in Hitler’s death machine only because they were Jews.
In Theresienstadt, a transit camp to Auschwitz, Alice turned to music for her private meditation and solace. Alice was blessed with the ability to listen silently to the music inside her head during the long hours she worked as a slave laborer splitting mica. And Alice comforted countless prisoners by playing more than 100 concerts for her fellow inmates between 1943 and liberation on May 8, 1945. Initially music had been forbidden in Theresienstadt and instruments and scores, smuggled into the camp by Jewish musicians, were confiscated by Nazi guards. Yet, even under threat of severe punishment, prisoners managed to gather for secret concerts often vocal music performed a capella. Not only did the Nazis discover the concerts, they lifted the ban as they found artistic activities useful for their propaganda schemes. What they did not realize was the force of music to keep hope alive among the prisoners.
Through Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Bach Alice shared her wordless prayers with her illustrious audience that often included Rabbi Leo Baeck, Sigmund Freud’s sister, Henry Kissinger’s aunt and Dr. Viktor Frankl. Through music her audience, if only for one hour, was mentally transported back to their homes to the deep recesses of their souls and lives of generosity, and goodness. Grounded in the Jewish tradition of reverence for life, Alice instinctively obeyed the instructions of Psalm 150: Praise God with sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with resounding cymbals…Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Younger prisoners recall Alice smiling and laughing in the camp, inspiring others to welcome every day as a gift. More than half a century later she reminds us “music saved my life; music was our spiritual food, through music we were kept alive.”
Today Alice lives on her own in London in her cocoon-like one-room apartment with her upright piano and a few mementos. “I have lived my life in music and I will die in music. I care about nothing else,” she says. Alice practices piano, mostly Bach from memory, three hours or more daily and listens to recorded music throughout the night. Her life is a testament to the power of music, and the importance of leading a life of material simplicity, intellectual curiosity and the supremacy of never-ending faith.
Caroline Stoessinger is the author of “A Century of Wisdom, Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.”