'I Look at the Good'

Alice Herz-Sommer, who claims music saved her during the Holocaust, looks back on 106 years of life - including her childhood in Prague and her family's relationship with Franz Kafka - and offers a few secrets to longevity.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

LONDON - Nothing in her appearance, behavior or speech betrays the advanced age of Alice Herz-Sommer, who recently celebrated her 106th birthday. Sommer, who was born in Prague in 1903, still keeps to a regular and independent routine, decades after her peers have passed away. She is coherent, clear-eyed, witty, funny and opinionated, smiles often - and is very content with life.

The encounter with her, at the small apartment in which she lives by herself, is like traveling in a time machine that alternately moves forward and backward. One moment she excitedly recalls the happy hours she spent with her friend Franz Kafka; then she talks painfully about her mother and her husband, who were murdered in the Holocaust; speaks reverently of her love for the piano, which she says saved her life at Theresienstadt; grows sad once again over the death of her only son, eight years ago; and thereafter smiles at the sight of the flowers on her windowsill.

"Everyone wants to reach an advanced age, but to be elderly is actually to be sick all the time. The body can no longer resist disease," she says.

And yet Sommer is in fact quite healthy: She is able to stand up and walk on her own, answers the phone, reads books and enjoys music.

"I have trouble moving these two fingers," she says with an embarrassed smile, waving her hand and explaining why she plays the piano with just eight fingers. Other than that, knock wood, everything is in working order.

"Only when you get to be very old are you aware of life's beauty," she explains. "Young people take everything for granted, whereas we, the elderly, understand nature. What I have learned, at my advanced age, is to be grateful that we have a nice life. There is electricity, cars, telegraph, telephone, Internet. We also have hot water all day long. We live like kings. I even got used to the bad weather in London," she adds with a smile.

Sommer was born into a secular and educated Jewish family. Besides her twin sister, Mariana, she had another sister and two brothers. She discovered a love for music at the age of 3, and it has remained with her to this day. Her family home in Prague was also a cultural salon where writers, scientists, musicians and actors congregated. One of these, author Franz Kafka, she remembers well: He was the best friend of the journalist, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch, who married her sister Irma.

"Kafka was a slightly strange man," Sommer recalls. "He used to come to our house, sit and talk with my mother, mainly about his writing. He did not talk a lot, but rather loved quiet and nature. We frequently went on trips together. I remember that Kafka took us to a very nice place outside Prague. We sat on a bench and he told us stories. I remember the atmosphere and his unusual stories. He was an excellent writer, with a lovely style, the kind that you read effortlessly," she says, and then grows silent. "And now, hundreds of people all over the world research and write doctorates about him."

She says she knows about the ongoing trial in Israel, at the center of which is the question of who owns the rights to Kafka's estate.

"Kafka would have been against this. Don't forget that he asked his friend Max Brod not to publish his writings. That much I know," says Sommer - she is the last person alive who knew Kafka personally.

When World War I broke out, she was 11. Five years later she enrolled at the German music academy in Prague, where she was the youngest pupil. Within a short time she became one of the city's most famous pianists, and in the early 1930s was also known throughout Europe. Max Brod, the man who published Kafka's works, recognized Sommer's talent and reviewed several of her performances for a newspaper.

"Music is my world. I am wealthier than everyone, thanks to music," she declares.

In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer, also a musician. Six years later their only son, Rafael, was born. In 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Several of Sommer's friends and relatives fled to Palestine, including her two sisters, Mariana and Irma, her brother-in-law Felix Weltsch and their close friend Max Brod. The group boarded the last train that left Prague on March 14, 1939, the day before the Germans entered the country, en route to Romania, from where they sailed for Palestine.

This was a very difficult time for Sommer, who had stayed behind. The Nazis forbade Jews to perform in public, and so she stopped holding concerts and participating in music competitions. At first she was still able to make a living by giving piano lessons, but when the Nazis forbade Jews to teach non-Jews, she lost most of her pupils.

"Everything was forbidden. We couldn't buy groceries, take the tram, or go to the park," she says.

But the hardest times of all still lay ahead. In 1942 the Germans arrested her sick mother, Sophie, who was 72 at the time, and subsequently murdered her.

"That was the lowest point in my life," Sommer says. "A catastrophe. The bond between a mother and her child is something special. I loved her so much. But an inner voice told me, 'From now on you alone can help yourself. Not your husband, not the doctor, not the child.' And at that moment I knew I had to play Frederic Chopin's 24 etudes, which are the greatest challenge for any pianist. Like Goethe's 'Faust' or Shakespeare's 'Hamlet.' I ran home and from that moment on I practiced for hours and hours. Until they forced us out."

'Who is Hitler?'

In 1943, Sommer was sent to the Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp, along with her husband and their son, who was then 6 years old. The Nazis allowed the Jews to maintain a cultural life there, in order to present the false impression to the world that the inmates were receiving proper treatment. Sommer thus performed there together with other musicians.

"We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year," she recounts. "The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn't come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have."

Once, Sommer says, a Nazi officer came up to her in the camp and said: "Are you Frau Sommer? I can hear your concert from the window. I come from a musical family and understand music. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

Her son Rafael also took part in the musical effort and appeared in the lead role in the Czech children's opera "Brundibar," with music by Hans Krasa and libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister, which was staged at the camp.

"He was happy," Sommer says, "but he asked questions like: Who is Hitler? What is war? Why is there nothing to eat? For two years we ate only black coffee and soup. It's not easy for a mother to see her child crying, and to know that she does not even have a little bread to give him."

In September 1944, her husband Leopold was sent to Auschwitz. He survived his imprisonment there, but died of illness at Dachau shortly before the war ended. His departing words to her at Theresienstadt saved her life, says Sommer: "One evening he came and told me that 1,000 men would be sent on a transport the following day - himself included. He made me swear not to volunteer to follow him afterward. And a day after his transport there was another one, which people were told was a transport of 'wives following in their husbands' footsteps.' Many wives volunteered to go, but they never met up with their husbands: They were murdered. If my husband hadn't warned me, I would have gone at once."

In May 1945, the Soviet army liberated Theresienstadt. Two years later Sommer and her son immigrated to Palestine, where they were reunited with her family: her twin Mariana, who had meanwhile married Prof. Emil Adler, one of the founders of Hadassah Medical Center (their son, Prof. Chaim Adler, is an Israel Prize laureate for education), and with Irma and her husband Felix (their grandson is actor Eli Gorenstein).

"I don't hate the Germans," Sommer declares. "[What they did] was a terrible thing, but was Alexander the Great any better? Evil has always existed and always will. It is part of our life."

In 1962, she adds, she attended the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem: "I have to say that I had pity for him. I have pity for the entire German people. They are wonderful people, no worse than others."

Despite everything she went through? "Yes," she answers. "I would not be alive without pity. That is the reason I am still alive: I think about the good. That takes a lot of practice."

For almost 40 years Sommer lived in Israel, making a living by teaching music at a conservatory in Jerusalem. "That was the best period in my life," she recalls. "I was happy."

Jewish humor

On the walls of her London apartment are pictures of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, among other things; alongside Kafka's works, her bookshelves hold several volumes by Amos Oz.

"Jews are an extraordinary and complicated people. They are helpful and generous, but not always easy to live with," she notes, with a laugh. "A sense of humor is what makes me particularly Jewish. Nobody has this kind of humor. And the same goes for a sense of family. We are far more family-oriented than others. Not like the English, who spend time with their dogs."

She emphasizes that for her, however, Judaism is not connected to religion per se: "I am Jewish without religion. The past - Einstein, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Spinoza - is what defines us as Jews. And the [emphasis on] education of our children: Everyone has to be a doctor. The best doctors, scientists and writers are Jews."

In 1986, Sommer followed her son, a cellist, and his family to London. She continued playing and teaching; to this day she devotes three hours a day to practicing. She speaks lovingly of her two grandchildren, whose father, Rafael, died of a heart attack in Israel in 2001, at the end of a concert tour. He was 64.

"His birth was the happiest day of my life, and his death was the worst thing that happened to me," she notes, but manages to find a bright spot even here. "I am grateful at least that he did not suffer when he died. And I still watch my son play, on television. He lives on. Sometimes I think it will be possible someday to postpone death through technology."

What is your secret to a long life?

Sommer: "In a word: optimism. I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive."

And what about diet?

"My recommendation is not to eat a lot, but also not to go hungry. Fish or chicken and plenty of vegetables."

Aren't you afraid of death?

"Not at all. No. I was a good person, I helped people, I was loved, I have a good feeling."



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