Tuesday 4 March 2014

The Lady in Number 6

"Music saved my life." (Alice Herz Sommer)

Alice Herz-Sommer

And the Oscar goes to..."The Lady in Number 6".  It was a week before the 2014 Oscars that the lady in number 6 passed away at the age of 110.  The oldest known Holocaust survivor, she lived everyday to the fullest, still doing her own shopping and cooking.  She walked twice a day and she played her piano three hours a day in her London flat.  In fact, according to the elderly lady, it was music that saved her life.

Alice Herz Sommer was born and raised in Prague, Austria-Hungary in 1903.  She was the daughter of a merchant father and a highly educated mother who liked to associate with Prague's authors and artists.  As a young lady, Alice became a successful concert pianist performing with the Czech Philharmonic.  She lived to play Beethoven and Bach to Prague audiences.

Alice Herz-Sommer

But the music stopped when the Nazis arrived at her doorstep and took her mother, her husband, her son and herself to a concentration camp.  Her husband Leopold succumbed to typhus at Dachau.  Her mother also died in one of the camps.  Only Alice and her son Stephan survived.

It was at Theresienstadt that Alice rediscovered music.  And it was music that literally saved her life.  The Nazis recognized what a talented pianist Alice was and agreed to the staging of 100 concerts by the inmates, largely for propaganda purposes.  As Alice explained:  "What the Nazis failed to understand was that the power of music to provide comfort and hope to the performers and their audiences was stronger than the terror of their masters."

Alice refused to succumb to the evils of the camp, focussing instead on the positives. Her son Stephan claimed that he had very few dark memories of the camp since his mother was such a joyful presence and sheltered him as much as possible.  He too participated in the entertainment at the camp, as part of an opera called "Brundibar".  Stephan even starred in a propaganda movie filmed by the Nazis to convince the Red Cross that the camp was "humane".

Theresienstadt gates circa 1940's courtesy www.holocaustresearchproject.com.

Theresienstadt was liberated by the Soviets in May of 1945.  Alice and her son returned to Prague where someone else was living in their apartment.  Life was not the same.  Four years later they moved to Israel.  Stephan learned to play the cello and was offered a scholarship at the Paris Conservatory which he accepted.  Later he moved to London and played to audiences worldwide.

Alice followed her son to London in 1986 where she settled in a flat in the centre of town.  She continued to play the piano three hours a day.  She continued to live life to the fullest.  She continued to be a light to those around her.   "Every day is beautiful" was her constant refrain despite the evil she had been witness to.  She was "the lady in number 6".

Documentary cover courtesy nickreedent.com.

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