Alice Herz-Sommer (1903-2014)

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Pianist who survived the Holocaust dies aged 110

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Alice Herz-Sommer, a concert pianist who was also the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust, has died at the age of 110.

As a Czech-born Jew, Herz-Sommer’s extraordinarily traumatic life saw her survive two years in the ghetto town of Terezín during World War II, where her concert performances to fellow inmates effectively saved her life – while her husband was moved to Auschwitz in 1944, she and her son avoided transportation to the Nazi concentration camps.

Born in Prague in 1903, Herz-Sommer learned the piano from a young age and, encouraged to become a musician by the great pianist Artur Schnabel, went on to study at the Prague German Conservatory of Music. Her early concert career saw her give a number of recitals per year and perform with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, but the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1938 saw her immediately prevented from playing in public. While other members of her family fled abroad, she opted to stay in her home country.

In 1943 Herz-Sommer, her husband Leopold and her only son Raphael were sent by the Terezin, a dangerously overcrowded and grimly maintained ghetto for Jewish people. It was here that her piano skills ensured her safety – wanting to present Terezin as a relatively normal society to outside observers, cultural activities such as piano recitals given by Herz-Sommer’s concerts were valued by the Nazis, and she was regarded as a useful asset.

‘I remember my first concert was in winter time, very cold,’ she recalled in BBC Music Magazine in 2010. ‘So I was playing in my coat, in my high boots and I don’t remember whether I had something on my head, but I played. I admire still now the people who came – old, ill and suffering. It was a remedy, for us and for them.’

Though she and Raphael emerged from the ordeal of Terezin, the end of the war did not bring an end to their traumatic existence – returning to Prague they, along with many other German-speaking Jews, found they were no longer welcome there, and, in 1949, moved to Israel.

Herz-Sommer would go on to live there for the next 37 years, earning her living as a piano teacher while Raphael developed a career as a leading concert cellist. In 1986, she moved to London’s Belsize Park where, living in a one-bedroom flat, she continued to practise the piano with a rigorous regularity right until the end of her life.

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Jeremy Pound

Jeremy Pound

Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound