Alice Herz-Sommer is the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world. She lost much of her family to the horror of the concentration camps and was forced to act as part of the Nazi propaganda machine, performing concerts as a demonstration of how ‘well’ prisoners were treated by their German captors.
But, this is by no means a tale of sadness. This tale, with music at its centre, is one of the greatest stories of hope and inspiration of our times.
‘The world is beautiful. Nature is something extraordinary… music is something phenomenal. People who have no relationship to music, they are poor, they don’t know what is the most beautiful thing in life.’ – Alice Herz-Sommer
Alice was born in Prague in 1903. She became a successful and well-known concert pianist during the years that followed, before falling victim to the Nazi regime and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Theresienstadt was unusual in a number of ways, due to the fact that the camp was used to promote Nazi ideals and behaviour to the rest of the world through a series of highly publicized and manipulated artistic performances. Regular performances of classical music were held and gifted musicians were given preferential treatment, which in many instances meant the difference between survival and death.
In the video clip below you will see one of Alice’s friends (and a fellow Holocaust survivor) speak about the importance that music played during this time. The playing of music had little to do with enjoyment. Music was one of the great morale builders during a time where inspiration was in obvious short supply. It helped people get from one day to the next and, no doubt, reminded them of the beauty that lay beyond the walls they were incarcerated behind.
Alice survived the war, along with her son, and in 1986 moved to London. Now, at 108 years old she lives in a modest apartment block. Every day, people visit her to hear her story, chat about daily life, listen to music or partake in a game of scrabble.
In this video we hear a neighbor explain that passers-by regularly stand at the bottom of the block of flats, peering up at the tiny windows, just listening to the music that Alice still plays to this very day. Even with no knowledge of her incredible back-story, Alice is an inspiration.
The secret to a long and happy life
There’s not an ounce of anger in Alice. Not one ounce of regret. Not a single sign of sadness. She is a self-proclaimed optimist who seeks to see the beauty in the world around her, and the thing she cares about, more than any other, is music.
‘What is the secret of you feeling so good at your age?’ Alice was asked in a recent interview.
‘Optimism’, she answers.
‘Looking for the good. Life is beautiful. You have to be happy, to admire, to thank. Thankful that we are living. Wherever you look is beauty.’
To end with today, I’ve added the video that promotes a recent documentary, ‘Dancing Under the Gallows’ that focuses upon her life. At time of filming she was a spritely 106 years old and showing no signs of slowing down for anything or anyone.