Wednesday, 3 November 2010

"Every day in life is beautiful"

" I love people, i love everyone"

Alice Herz-Sommer at 107 years old this year is the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world and although an internationally renowned pianist for more than eighty years, she has recently re-entered the public consciousness. A few years ago thanks to the biography " A Garden of Eden in Hell"  published well past her 100th birthday and this year due to a new documentary short directed by Oscar winning director Malcolm Clarke called "Dancing Under the Gallows". The documentary examines the Czech-born musician's remarkable life and shows that although her life has been defined by her survival of the holocaust it has never, to her eternal credit, dimmed her vivacity or optimism. Alice Herz Sommer plays Chopin and speaks of how music helped maintain a sense of hope and humanity in the Nazi ghetto of Theresienstadt/Terezín near Prague which was home to a remarkable array of renowned Czech musicians, composers and theatrical artists, writing and performing as they and their fellow Jewish inmates awaited an unknown fate in Auschwitz. Ahead of a London concert to commemorate their lives and work, Ed Vulliamy also talks to some of the survivors who remembered them.

Alice Hetz-Sommer was born in 1903 into a Jewish, acculturated and German-speaking family in Prague. She started playing the piano at a very young age, and at 21, made her debut as soloist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer and their son Stephan (later to be called Raphael) was born in 1937. With the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 their lives changed swiftly, with humiliating restrictions being imposed on Jews day after day. And then the deportations began. First, in July 1942 her 72-year old mother was deported from her Old Age Home to Theresienstadt (and from there to the Treblinka death camp). Then a year later, in July 1943, it was the turn of Alice, Leopold and Stephan, then aged six, to be sent to Theresienstadt. The physical conditions there were grim, but a few months before the Sommers arrived, the SS had decided to turn it into a `show camp' for observers from the International Red Cross - and so the deportees were provided with musical instruments (which had been confiscated from Jews) and were allowed to arrange their own entertainment. Alice gave many recitals and Stephan, who was musically even more precocious than his mother had been at that age, was quickly roped in to rehearse and perform in Brundibar, the opera specially composed for the children in the camp.

As defeat for Germany drew nearer in the autumn of 1944, the SS, possibly fearing an uprising of the able-bodied men in Theresienstadt, decided to send them to the extermination camps. Alice's husband was among these: she never saw him again. She learnt later that he had survived the death-march from Auschwitz to Dachau - only to die there of typhus.
But Himmler still wanted to preserve Theresienstadt as a `model' camp and to produce it in his defence at the end of the war. Alice had to work an eight hour day in barracks where slates were broken up to make insulating materials, work which was particularly hard on her hands; but in the evening she would often perform in the concerts that continued to be staged. In May 1945 Theresienstadt was liberated and in mid-June Alice and Stephan were able to return to Prague and to continue their music and lives there.

(If you want to see the finished film early next year please email: )

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