|Birth:||26 November 1903|
Prague, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic)
|Death:||23 February 2014|
London, England, UK
|Age:||110 years, 89 days|
Alice Herz-Sommer, also known as Alice Sommer (26 November 1903 – 23 February 2014), was a Prague-born Jewish pianist, music teacher, and supercentenarian who survived Theresienstadt concentration camp. She lived for 40 years in Israel, before migrating to London in 1986, where she resided until her death, and at the age of 110 was the world's oldest known Holocaust survivor. However, it later emerged that Israel Kristal was over two months older and a Holocaust survivor. Still, this does not change this woman's incredible story of survival or the human-interest value of it.
Alice Herz was born in Prague, Czech Republic, to Friedrich and Sofie "Gigi" Herz. Her father was a merchant and her mother was highly educated and moved in circles of well-known writers. She had two sisters, including a twin sister, Mariana, and two brothers. Her parents ran a cultural salon where Herz, as a child, met writers including Franz Kafka, composers including Gustav Mahler, and philosophers. Herz commented "Kafka was a slightly strange man. He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories."
Herz's older sister Irma taught her how to play the piano, which she studied diligently, and the pianist Artur Schnabel, a friend of the family, encouraged her to pursue a career as a classical musician; a choice she decided to make. She went on to study under Václav Štěpán, and at the Prague German Conservatory of Music, where she was the youngest pupil. Herz married the businessman and amateur musician Leopold Sommer in 1931; the couple had a son, Stephan (later known as Raphael, 1937–2001). She began giving concerts and making a name for herself across Europe until the Nazis took over Prague, as they did not allow Jews to perform in public, join music competitions or teach non-Jewish pupils.
After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, most of Herz-Sommer's family and friends emigrated to Palestine via Romania, including Max Brod and brother-in-law Felix Weltsch, but Herz-Sommer stayed in Prague to care for her ill mother, Sofie, aged 72; both women were arrested and Sofie Herz was murdered in a concentration camp. In July 1943 Herz was sent to Theresienstadt, where she played in more than 100 concerts along with other musicians, for prisoners and guards. She commented of her performances in the camp:
Herz-Sommer was billeted with her son during their time at the camp, he was one of only a few children to survive Theresienstadt. Her husband died of typhus in Dachau, six weeks before the camp was liberated. After the Soviet liberation of Theresienstadt in 1945, She and Raphael returned to Prague, and, in March 1949, emigrated to Israel to be reunited with some of her surviving family, including her twin sister, Mariana. Herz lived in Israel for almost 40 years, working as a music teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music until emigrating to London in 1986. Her son Raphael, an accomplished cellist and conductor, died in 2001, aged 64, of an aneurysm in Israel at the end of a concert tour. He was survived by his wife and two sons.
In London, Herz-Sommer lived close to her family in a one-room flat in Belsize Park, visited almost daily by her closest friends, her grandson Ariel Sommer, and daughter-in-law Genevieve Sommer. She practised playing the piano three hours a day until the end of her life. She stated that optimism was the key to her life:
She also declared a firm belief in the power of music: "Music saved my life and music saves me still... I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion."
Herz-Sommer died in hospital in London on 23 February 2014, aged 110, after being admitted two days previously.
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