When you hear about the Holocaust do the same questions well up inside of you? Did the United States know and do nothing? And what about the International Red Cross which was aware of the horrifying reality of the concentration camps in Europe and the millions of Jews that were being murdered there? These same questions swelled up within me when I recently read of the death of the oldest known holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer who died at the age of 110.
Alice and her son had been confined to a concentration camp in Terezin or Theresienstadt. It was here that she was able to continue to play the piano and she believed that it was
music and her son that sustained her through two years in the Nazi prison.
I’ve read that the Terezin camp was set up as a model Jewish town and that when the Red Cross visited there they saw gardens, play areas for children and heard wonderful concerts. It was in these concerts that Alice Sommer starred. The reality was that after this charade, the people who were used to deceive the world of the horror at these camps, were murdered at Auschwitz.
Mrs. Sommer and her son remained alive and although she never learned where her mother died, and her husband died of typhus at Dachau, (another camp) in her old age she expressed little bitterness. Alice married Leopold
Sommer in 1931. Their son was born in 1937, two years before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. This was a very hard time for the Jews, but Alice said she didn’t mind because she was full of enthusiasm about being a mother. She is quoted as saying, “in everyone there is some good and bad.” She remembered that on the night before her departure to the concentration camp when neighbors came to take whatever the family couldn’t take with them, that it was a Nazi, who lived upstairs, that called to say he would miss her hours and hours of playing beautiful music. The lowest point in her life came when her mother and husband were taken away, and that’s when an inner voice seemed to say, “Now no one can help you, not your husband, your little child, nor the doctor.”
I don’t clearly understand why Alice was allowed to continue playing the piano in the
concentration camp, except that occasionally the Nazi would use a camp as a model and at her’s, inmates were allowed to stage concerts. This camp was where prisoners were held before being taken away for extermination. She credits music with keeping her alive and said that music was “our food.” However, not all was good news for Terezin, An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent there and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were moved on to Auschwitz and other death camps where most of them were killed. Mrs. Herz-Sommer and her son, Stephan, were among fewer than 20,000 who were freed when the notorious camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945.
Alice started learning piano at the age of 5 and she became an accomplished concert pianist . But why would she give credit to this stage of creativity as having saved her life? With a
little research I found that music itself can reduce anxiety and stress. Playing piano a few moments can help the mind refocus, relieving stress and even lowering a person’s blood pressure. Piano playing can also affect the mental health of an individual and pianists may see a reduction in depression. In 1949, Alice left Czechoslovakia to join her twin sister, Mizzi, in Jerusalem. She taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory until 1986, when she moved to London. She was the inspiration for two books and is the subject of a documentary film, soon to be considered for an academy award. Her son, who changed his first name to Raphael after the war, made a career as a concert cellist. He died in 2001.
Have the many questions which haunt people about the Holocaust been answered? At the time, the U.S. was in its ninth year of the Great Depression and did not have the financial
resources to deal with huge numbers of new immigrants. Twelve million strong military were sent in 45 divisions into western Europe. Many had been “ill-informed” about the horrifying reality of the camps, including the International Red Cross. In the end, about 200,000 Americans died ending the Nazi regime, thus ending the Holocaust. Many questions remain, and answers come much too late.
I’d love to hear from you on this subject. I’m waiting for your comments. I’m in need of some piano playing because just writing about this subject makes me depressed. Imagine living it!