From Prague to Theresienstadt

Alice’s Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99) by best-selling German author Melissa Müller (Anne Frank: The Biography) and cultural historian Reinhard Piechocki, is the biography of a musician who gave hope to thousands of Theresienstadt inmates while struggling to save her six-year-old son. Alice Herz-Sommer’s own life spanned the entire twentieth century. At 108, Herz-Sommer is reputed to be the oldest living survivor, and her story is a spellbinding tale of salvation through music.

Herz-Sommer grew up in the charmed “Prague Circle” of German-speaking Jewish avant-garde writers who flourished in pre-War Prague. Franz Kafka, for example, is remembered by Herz-Sommer as always making excuses for being late for everything, except when he had a date with her to go swimming.

Her ambition to be a musician came from stories she heard from her grandmother, including one about Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, who lived two streets away. Herz-Sommer distinguished herself from her twin sister by being the optimist, full of joy and happiness. When her mother was being deported, her final words to her daughter were “Study the Chopin Etudes!” And when her husband was transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, his last words to his wife were, “Do what ever you can to remain in Theresienstadt!” These two messages sustained Herz-Sommer until liberation.

As the authors describe, the “ghetto paradise” of Theresienstadt had a vast machinery of performance — musical, operatic, theatrical — designed to create a façade of normalcy and mask what was in fact a concentration camp. Alice’s husband, Leopold Sommer, a musician in his own right, was a doting husband to Alice. Her son Stephan, an inquisitive and gifted pianist, was deported to Theresienstadt at age six. There he survived with his mother by performing in plays, including Brundibar.

We learn from this book that in Theresienstadt, Herz-Sommer chose pieces of music that enabled inmates to identify with their despair, and at the same time gave them hope for a future. Coming through always in this riveting book is the angst of a mother trying to protect her child, the personal narrative beautifully woven into the picture of the cultural life of the camp. Alice’s Piano is a valuable contribution to the genre of Holocaust memoir and an estimable contribution to social and cultural history.

After liberation, Alice Herz-Sommer returned to Prague, and, in a story all too familiar, faced anti-Semitism again. She vowed not to speak about Theresienstadt, nor about the fate of her husband. After she performed a concert broadcast over Radio Prague, her sister Marianne, hearing it on short-wave radio in Palestine, knew that Alice had survived the war. In Prague in 1948, Herz-Sommer gave a concert the profits from which went to buy Czech weapons for Jews in Palestine, and she herself moved to Israel in 1949. Alice thrived professionally and socially, all the while raising a son who eventually continued his musical studies in Paris, where he won the Grand Prix of the Paris Conservatory. He married and settled in London, and in 1986 his mother moved there to be near her son and his family. She continued to give concerts, and swim regularly, and she is still in daily contact with friends worldwide..

Eva Fogelman is a social psychologist and psychotherapist. She is the award-winning author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. She also wrote and co-produced the award-winning film “Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust.”