Thursday, 16 December 2010


Born 1903, concert pianist and holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer has never lost her passion for music. In fact, she owes her life to it. She now lives in north London, with her Steinway piano.

“Art is difficult. When you know something a 100 per cent, your satisfaction is happiness. It happens very often that I’m not a 100 per cent, but it’s a good thing – I work more and more!”

Walking up to Alice’s door, I prepared myself for going back in time. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, two World Wars, Israel and London are a lot to take in one lifetime. But this remarkable woman has done it all, with beaming grace.

Alice Herz-Sommer has seen the worst life has to offer, having survived the holocaust and owing it to the talent she’s been blessed with. She was a world famous pianist, recognised amongst musicians like Gustav Mahler (“difficult character”), Antonín Dvořák, Josef Suk, and Vítězslav Novák, some of whom used to visit her childhood home in Prague, alongside intellectuals like Franz Kafka. “I played especially Czech music, and they were thankful for what I did. Everywhere in the world they played Czech music. People loved it.”

On November 26th, Alice celebrated her 107th birthday. I brought her flowers, which seemed to be assimilated in the multitude of bouquets filling her flat, surrounding her old Steinway piano. “It’s an excellent piano, but it doesn’t matter! I played on very bad pianos,” she said, tapping her fingers on the table. “It’s nice to play a good instrument, but the main thing is what you know. It takes hard work – and you must love it!”

She started playing when she was five. "My eldest sister was an excellent pianist. She was teaching me until my 16th birthday. Then I studied with a pupil of Franz Liszt."

Most of Alice’s family were musicians. “We didn’t speak about anything else,” she recalled. “Every evening we went to a concert with my mother. I heard the greatest pianists.”

At 14 she already had students, and she gave the money to her mother. “They came to learn because I encouraged them. I was never nervous.” She never stopped teaching, even after coming to London at 84. “I didn’t know the language and it was a little bit difficult,” she confided in me. “I taught my grandchildren the piano. I love children, they discover the world!” she declared so passionately.

In 1943, Alice was sent with her husband and 6-year-old son to Theresienstadt (Terezín) concentration camp, a “show-camp” made for visitors from the Red Cross, simulating a rich cultural life amongst the inmates. “We had to work all day. I only played when I had a concert. Music is so wonderful, it brings you into another world. You are not anymore here.”

I asked her whether she was told what to play. “No, I decided. I was already world famous. They knew I was a musician. I loved playing Les 24 Études by Chopin: it’s like Hamlet to Shakespeare. Extraordinary. There were no notes, no books. We had to know everything by heart. And we didn’t eat.”

How did she have the energy to play, I wondered. “This I ask myself. The boy asked, ‘Why have we nothing to eat?’ What could you say? Not yet six, He asked, ‘What are Jews?’ What can you tell? How?“

Her husband, who played the violin, was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. He died of typhus shortly before the end of the war. When Israel was founded, Alice moved to Jerusalem with her son. “I had one room where the piano was, and a quiet little room where my son and I were sleeping,” she told me.

“I was never interested in operas, not like orchestras. I played the whole world. For me, playing in Israel was beautiful. I played a lot of Paul Ben-Haim and Haim Alexander.” She recalled an experience with her “pessimistic sister” while playing in Israel: “One minute before I had to go on stage, she asked me ‘Do you know how it starts?’ The worst thing she could have asked!” she said with a big laugh.

I asked her whether she plays anything other than piano. She shook her head, explaining, “You can’t do two things well. Do one thing, not necessarily music, then it’s perfect. Even when you sleep, you’re thinking of it, dreaming of it.”

Alice came to London at age 84, following her son, Raphael Sommer, a famous cellist, pianist and conductor. She takes pride in teaching him the piano. “He only wanted to work with me.” In 2001 Raphael died in Israel during a tour. “He used to come every day to eat,” she reminisced, “and he was still sitting afterwards and we spoke for hours. Wonderful relationship. He learned from me, I learned from him.”

Alice and myself, shortly after her 107th birthday

I asked her whether there’s anything she finds emotionally charged to play or listen to. She shook her head, remaining indifferent to my question. “Do you know that in Israel they refuse playing Wagner?” I insisted. “I can’t understand it,”  she said. “My best friends live in Germany. Never hated, will never hate. They did what Hitler said. Hitler was a mad man.” Hesitantly, I mentioned Reinhard Heydrich. “What do you think of him?” I asked. “Nothing,” she laughed. “He played the violin, he was a human being!”

Alice plays three hours every day: “It’s the most beautiful thing I have.” Her favourite pieces are Chopin’s Études and Schumann’s Fantasia in C Major, which are also the ones she finds the most difficult to play. But she starts with Bach – “the philosopher of music”. She works hours to learn it by heart. “Bach is the hardest thing. Extremely complicated. I write it down sometimes, out of memory.”

Suddenly she takes my hands, declaring “You have beautiful hands!” I thanked her, blushing. “Could you tell if someone has ‘hands for piano’?” I asked. “Maybe,” she examined mine, “it’s always better to have bigger hands.” She showed me that her two index fingers bend in. “It started when I was in Prague. It hurts sometimes, but I still play!” she laughed.

“Tell me,” she asked me, “what are genes? My family was all musical. My grandchildren are musical. It goes from one generation to another. What are genes?“ she wondered. “Music runs in your genes?” I asked. “Yes! This is a miracle!” she said, shining. “It makes you proud?” I smiled at her. “Thankful as well,” she added.

“The ears are bad, the eyes are bad. In spite of all, life is beautiful: spring, nature, your flowers – so big and beautiful,” she declared, smiling. Growing up in Israel, I’ve met many survivors and heard their stories. But this lady is not like any other. Nothing could have really prepared me for this unique, unforgettable experience, of meeting such an optimistic soul. “Art is difficult. Not only art, everything is difficult. When you know something a 100 per cent, your satisfaction is happiness. It happens very often that I’m not a 100 per cent, but it’s a good thing – I work more and more and more!”