During the Holocaust, a musical prayer of hope
By Caroline Stoessinger
Since early childhood, music has always been a kind of prayer for 108-year-old Alice Herz-Sommer, the pianist from Prague and the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor. Gustav Mahler’s, Urlicht, “I come from God and will return to God” has been her life-long spiritual theme song. But the power of her faith would only be fully revealed after her secure world was destroyed on March 15, 1939 when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. Alice could never have imagined that she would be shipped as a prisoner to Theresienstadt concentration camp to endure unspeakable hardship, nor that her husband and aging mother would perish in Hitler’s death machine only because they were Jews.
In Theresienstadt, a transit camp to Auschwitz, Alice turned to music for her private meditation and solace. Alice was blessed with the ability to listen silently to the music inside her head during the long hours she worked as a slave laborer splitting mica. And Alice comforted countless prisoners by playing more than 100 concerts for her fellow inmates between 1943 and liberation on May 8, 1945. Initially music had been forbidden in Theresienstadt and instruments and scores, smuggled into the camp by Jewish musicians, were confiscated by Nazi guards. Yet, even under threat of severe punishment, prisoners managed to gather for secret concerts often vocal music performed a capella. Not only did the Nazis discover the concerts, they lifted the ban as they found artistic activities useful for their propaganda schemes. What they did not realize was the force of music to keep hope alive among the prisoners.
Through Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Bach Alice shared her wordless prayers with her illustrious audience that often included Rabbi Leo Baeck, Sigmund Freud’s sister, Henry Kissinger’s aunt and Dr. Viktor Frankl. Through music her audience, if only for one hour, was mentally transported back to their homes to the deep recesses of their souls and lives of generosity, and goodness. Grounded in the Jewish tradition of reverence for life, Alice instinctively obeyed the instructions of Psalm 150: Praise God with sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with resounding cymbals…Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Younger prisoners recall Alice smiling and laughing in the camp, inspiring others to welcome every day as a gift. More than half a century later she reminds us “music saved my life; music was our spiritual food, through music we were kept alive.”
Today Alice lives on her own in London in her cocoon-like one-room apartment with her upright piano and a few mementos. “I have lived my life in music and I will die in music. I care about nothing else,” she says. Alice practices piano, mostly Bach from memory, three hours or more daily and listens to recorded music throughout the night. Her life is a testament to the power of music, and the importance of leading a life of material simplicity, intellectual curiosity and the supremacy of never-ending faith.An inspiring story of resilience and the power of optimism—the true story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor.
"A treasure trove of insight and reflection.
Herz-Sommer's life is a tribute to the purity of artistic endeavor under the
most devastating circumstances, and her refusal to be bitterly defined or
essentially reshaped by tragedy is a testament to moral and spiritual
"A survivor of Theresienstadt and a world-class Czech pianist shares her amazing story of survival and triumph. Now living in London since she relocated from Jerusalem to be closer to her only son (now deceased), Herz-Sommer is shortly turning 108, still playing the piano, disciplined and abstemious in her daily habits and fairly active, as Stoessinger records over interviews with her between 2004 and 2011. These are short segments that amplify important aspects of her life, such as her acquaintanceship as a young girl in Prague with Franz Kafka and his circle, her happy though too-brief marriage and successful early career as a concert pianist and teacher, the birth of her son in 1937 just as the Nazis were exerting their terror over the Jewish community in Prague and their abrupt deportation to Theresienstadt in 1943. …[W]hat Stoessinger’s work reveals startlingly and firsthand are details of life in the concentration camp, especially how the musicians coped with the horrible conditions and even formed a vibrant community. … 'Every concert played there,' Stoessinger writes, 'became a moral victory against the enemy.' … Rounding out this work are memories from Herz-Sommer’s students and friends, reflections on favorite authors such as Spinoza, Rilke and Zweig and even recipes."—Kirkus Reviews
"As if her 108 years of experience alone were not enough to coax you, there is the overarching fact that draws people to Herz-Sommer’s story: She survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp and is believed to be the oldest living Holocaust survivor."--The Washington Post
“I have rarely read a Holocaust survivor’s memoir as enriching and meaningful. Get Caroline Stoessinger’s book, A Century of Wisdom, telling Alice Herz-Sommer’s tale of her struggles and triumphs. You will feel rewarded.”—Elie Wiesel
“A Century of Wisdom is a stately and elegant book about an artist who found deliverance in her passion for music. Caroline Stoessinger writes with a special purity, as though she were arranging pearls on a string of silk.”—Pat Conroy
“As one of millions who fell in love on YouTube with Alice Herz-Sommer, a 108-year-old Holocaust survivor who plays the piano and greets each day with no hint of bitterness, I’m grateful to Caroline Stoessinger for writing a book that explains this mystery. You will be inspired by the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, who lives to teach us.”—Gloria Steinem
“I walked on the cobblestones in Prague for thirty years wondering who might have walked on them before me: Kafka, Freud, Mahler. It feels like a miracle to have encountered, in Caroline Stoessinger’s wonderful book, Alice Herz-Sommer, who walked with them all—with a heart full of music.”—Peter Sis
“Caroline Stoessinger’s celebration of music and life and of the meaning and legacy of Alice Herz-Sommer’s remarkable, love-filled journey across the bitter, hate-filled years of twentieth-century madness is lyrical, compelling, and profoundly moving. This is an extraordinary, enchanting, entirely inspiring book—most timely and needed now.”—Blanche Wiesen Cook
Caroline Stoessinger, a pianist, has appeared on the stages of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and for twenty-five years has performed with the Tokyo String Quartet and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra. Stoessinger produced the televised dedication of the Schindler violin at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the first New York production of Brundibár. She has played in concert halls from Tokyo and Prague to Spillville, Iowa, and for many years served as the artistic director at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She is artistic director of chamber music at the Tilles Center, artist-in-residence at John Jay College, director of the Newberry Chamber Players at the Newberry Opera House, and founder and president of the Mozart Academy. She lives in New York City.
Alice and Franz Kafka
As she unlatched the garden gate, eight-year-old Alice caught her first glimpse of a tall, very thin young man who, many years later, would be known as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Franz Kafka was Uncle Franz to Alice. He had arrived in a horse-drawn cart with a little bunch of multicolored flowers for her mother. As the flowers wilted in the sun, Kafka stopped to feed the horse apples that had fallen to the ground. “Poor Franz,” Alice reminisces. “He apologized for the flowers. But not because of their sad state but because there were so many different colors. He said he just couldn’t decide which color to choose.”
Alice had two older brothers, Georg and Paul, and two sisters, Irma, who was twelve years older than Alice, and Marianne, nicknamed Mitzi, who was Alice’s twin. Irma had become engaged to Felix “Fritz” Weltsch, an outgoing young philosopher who had met Kafka when they both were studying law at Charles University. Rejecting law as their profession, they became fast friends when they worked together in the same insurance firm. Away from work Weltsch pursued a second doctorate in philosophy, while Kafka wrote and began to publish, and together with Max Brod and Oscar Baum they formed a writers’ group, the “Prague Four.” Later they befriended a teenage poet, Franz Werfel.
It was only natural that Weltsch would invite his best friend to meet his future in-laws. “He very often came to our house,” Alice explains. Kafka felt so at ease in the Herzs’ literary and musical home that he became a regular at their Sunday table. “He was [like] a member of our family,” Alice says. Struggling with his Jewish identity, he found the warmth of their secular German Jewish life reassuring. Throughout his life Kafka settled on a kind of middle road with regard to his Jewish heritage, living by Jewish values, without adherence—other than his Bar Mitzvah—to organized religious traditions. He presented himself to the world and to his friends as a member of the European bourgeoisie, impeccably mannered and properly dressed. It is nearly impossible to find a photograph of Kafka casually clothed. As a child Alice thought it was strange that Franz always looked dressed for the office even on outings or picnics.
Observant Alice was quick to analyze and accept Kafka’s ways. He could be depended on to be late, to forget something, and even to lose his way—and then he would arrive apologizing for all of the above. He was so apologetic that it felt to Alice as if he were apologizing for the food he ate or even for simply being alive. But once he got past this, he was a lot of fun, and very responsible with children. In summers Kafka, who was fond of swimming, would organize parties under the Charles Bridge. Alice and Mitzi were often invited, along with Irma and her fiancé. Long before she met Kafka, Alice had become a superb swimmer and had no difficulty racing across the Vltava River.
One of Alice’s most endearing memories of Kafka was the cloudless summer day he showed up unannounced at their country house on the nanny’s day off. The twins were fidgety and impatient; they wanted to explore the nearby forest or go somewhere for a picnic. Kafka suggested a walking expedition in the surrounding countryside. Sofie reluctantly gave her permission, and with Alice and Mitzi as companions, Kafka took off for an adventurous day of exercise and fun. He was a speed walker, having taken up the sport to build strength in his frail body. The little girls did their best to keep up, but after the first mile, they had to slow down and then stop for a break. Kafka found a log the twins could use for a bench and a tree stump for himself. From his perch he commanded their attention with stories about fantastic imaginary beasts. The more they laughed the wilder Kafka’s inventions became. After an hour or so he produced “magic” sandwiches and a thermos of tea, which he claimed an invisible animal, half-bear and half-goat, had left for them in the woods. The great writer-to-be had as much fun as his charges.
Alice would always remember Franz Kafka as an “eternal child.”
From the age of nine Alice would sit beside her mother and listen to Kafka talk endlessly about the book he was writing or the one he wanted to write. Her mother was fascinated with the writer’s gifts, as literature and music had become an escape from her unhappy arranged marriage. Sofie was particularly intrigued by Kafka’s opening sentences, which were modern, even revolutionary in the early years of the twentieth century. He began his novel The Trial with “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” The Metamorphosis begins with “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” And The Castle draws the reader in with “It was late evening when K. arrived.”
Alice would beg him to tell her the stories over and over again. But she always wanted to know the ending—and that he could not answer. He simply could not complete his work. Later on he would write, “I am familiar with indecision, there’s nothing I know so well, but whenever something summons me, I fall flat, worn out by half-hearted inclinations and hesitations over a thousand earlier trivialities.”
When Alice and her mother asked him why he went to law school and became an attorney if he did not want to practice law, Kafka’s answer was simply that he could not decide what to study. He made this doubly clear when, after quitting Richard Lowy’s law firm, he wrote, “It had never been my intention to remain in the legal profession. On October 1, 1906, I entered his service and remained there until October 1, 1907.”
One year Kafka celebrated Passover with the Herz family. Despite his distaste for observing such traditions, he found Passover with Alice’s relatives a joyful family affair. He seemed to tolerate and even accept in the Herz home precisely what he despised in his own family, especially his father’s hypocritical annual practice of Jewish traditions. In A Letter to His Father, Kafka wrote, “I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me. . . . Four days a year you went to the synagogue, where you were . . . closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously.”
At holiday time Sofie’s Orthodox mother, Fanny, who lived with them, took over the kitchen and did her best to observe the Passover traditions. With the help of the maid, Fanny made kosher chicken soup, matzo balls, and the most tender brisket of beef. A few days before the holiday, she disposed of all leftover breads and pastries made with yeast and cleaned the cooking utensils, plates, and glasses with boiling water. Sofie and the children helped with the housecleaning. They polished the silver and set out their finest table linens. Alice was the most industrious, working hard to gain both her mother’s and her grandmother’s approval.
Alice’s father, who was usually excessively frugal, opened his home to friends—gentiles, neighbors, strangers, and the poor—for the holiday, in keeping with the tradition. He also invited the most senior of his factory workers to share in the seder feast. In 1912, the year that Kafka probably participated, the Herz seder was one of their largest and, aside from the family and Felix, included Kafka, neighbors, several factory workers, and the writer Oskar Baum. Irma cautioned Alice to treat Baum, who was blind, just like anyone else. Much later, when Max Brod wrote about Kafka’s first meeting with Baum, Alice recognized her sister’s advice as a seminal moment in her moral education. As Brod was introducing them, Kafka silently bowed to Baum, greeting the blind man as an equal. “That was what he was like,” Baum said. “Superior in depth of humanity to the ordinary run of kindness.”
Alice does not recall all who came for the holiday that year. What she remembers is folding the snow-white linen napkins, so she knows there were many guests at the table that evening. Alice also thinks that Kafka asked her to sit next to him.
It was the duty of Alice and Mitzi to distribute the Haggadoth, the booklets recounting the story of Passover. Friedrich Herz, who had also been raised Orthodox, led the abridged readings in German; Alice and Mitzi, who were the youngest, read the four questions together; their father explained the ancient meaning of Passover; and Kafka helped the girls search for the afikomen. They all repeated the ancient text “This year we are here, next year in Jerusalem.” No one, with the possible exception of Kafka, could have imagined that Jerusalem would become their safe haven in less than thirty years. When their father led “Dayenu,” the children’s favorite Passover song, in his rich baritone voice, everyone, even Kafka, sang. When the men retired to the living room for fine French brandy and cigars, they asked eight-year-old Alice to play. She obliged with a bagatelle by Beethoven and a Chopin waltz.
Kafka frequently fell in love. Although he made it clear that he dreamed of marriage, he complained that no one understood him. “To have one person with this understanding, a woman for example, . . . would mean to have God,” he wrote in his diary. He was not looking for a wife who insisted on crystal chandeliers and—as Alice says—“that heavy German furniture.” But Alice and her mother were certain that he would never decide to marry...