Oldest-known Holocaust survivor dies at 110
Photo dated July 2010 made available by the makers of the Oscar nominated documentary The Lady in Number 6, in which she tells her story, of Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest-known survivor of the Holocaust, who died in London on Sunday morning at the age of 110. Herz-Sommers devotion to the piano and to her son sustained her through two years in a Nazi prison camp. (AP Photo)
Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest-known survivor of the Holocaust, died yesterday morning in London at age 110, a family member said. Herz-Sommer’s devotion to the piano and to her son sustained her through two years in a Nazi prison camp, and a film about her has been nominated for best short documentary at next week’s Academy Awards.
She died in a hospital after being admitted Friday, daughter-in-law Genevieve Sommer said.
“We all came to believe that she would just never die,” said Frederic Bohbot, producer of the documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. “There was no question in my mind, ‘would she ever see the Oscars?’ ”
An accomplished pianist, Herz-Sommer, her husband and her son were sent from Prague in 1943 to a concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin – Theresienstadt in German – where inmates were allowed to stage concerts in which she frequently starred.
An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent to Terezin, and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were moved on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most of them were killed. Herz-Sommer and her son, Stephan, were among fewer than 20,000 who were freed when the notorious camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945.
Yet she remembered herself as “always laughing” during her time in Terezin, where the joy of making music kept them going.
“These concerts, the people are sitting there, old people, desolated and ill, and they came to the concerts and this music was for them our food. Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive,” she once recalled.
“When we can play it cannot be so terrible.”
Though she never learned where her mother died after being rounded up, and her husband died of typhus at Dachau, in her old age she expressed little bitterness.
“We are all the same,” she said. “Good, and bad.”
Herz-Sommer was born Nov. 26, 1903, in Prague and started learning the piano from her sister at age 5.
Alice married Leopold Sommer in 1931. Their son was born in 1937, two years before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.
“This was especially for Jews a very, very hard time. I didn’t mind, because I enjoyed to be a mother, and I was full of enthusiasm about being a mother, so I didn’t mind so much,” she said.
Jews were allowed to shop for only half an hour in the afternoon, by which time the shops were empty.
Most Jewish families were forced to leave their family apartments and were crammed into one apartment with other families, but her family was allowed to keep its home.
“We were poor, and we knew that they will send us away, and we knew already in this time that it was our end,” she said.
Herz-Sommer’s life inspired two books: A Garden of Eden in Hell (2006) by Melissa Mueller and Reinhard Piechocki, and A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor (2012) by Caroline Stoessinger.
In 1949, she left Czechoslovakia to join her twin sister Mizzi in Jerusalem. She taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory until 1986, when she moved to London.
Her son, who changed his first name to Raphael after the war, made a career as a concert cellist. He died in 2001.
Funeral arrangements weren’t immediately available.