Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dancing under the Gallows

May 4,  Rememberance Day 1945 - 2016
In honor of Alice Herz-Sommer who has been a true inspiration to me.

"Music is God. In difficult times you feel it, especially when you are suffering."

~ Alice Herz-Sommer

I first came to hear of Alice Herz-Sommer in January 2009, while I was browsing through the biography section in our local book store, and this book, written by Melissa Müller, almost fell into my lap: "Etudes of Comfort" - and inside I read the original title in German: "Ein Garten Eden inmitten der Hölle - Ein Jahrhundertleben" (A Garden of Eden in the heart of hell - a life that lasted more than a century). 

Born in 1903 in Prague during the Habsburg monarchy, Alice grew up in a liberal family where authors, philosophers, painters and actors were regular visitors, among whom were Freud, and Kafka, who was like an elder brother to Alice. As a very young girl she discovered her love for music, and at twenty she was the most famous pianiste in Prague. She travelled through Europe to play in concert halls, until the Nazi regime ended her career. When her mother was deported in 1942, Alice fell into the deepest depression. To hold on to life, she decided to study all 24 piano etudes of Chopin.

Twelve month later, in 1943, then age 39, she and her husband Leopold and their 6 year old son Raphaël were deported to Theresiënstadt (Terezín). For propaganda purposes, Theresienstadt was the only camp in which children were not taken from their parents. It was a 'show-camp' for visitors from the Red Cross, simulating a rich cultural life amongst the inmates. As Alice recounted the experience: "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 here anymore."

She gave over one hundred concerts in the midst of hunger, fear and death, and so gave strength and hope to her fellow captives. For her son Raphaël she created a world which helped him to forget camp life as much as possible. Her husband, who played the violin, was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. He died of typhus shortly before the end of the war. After the war she and her son returned to Prague. When Israel was founded, Alice moved to Jerusalem with Raphaël, who became a famous cellist. In 2001 Raphaël 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 Herz-Sommer had seen the worst life has to offer, having survived the holocaust and owing her survival to the talent she had been blessed with. She was a world famous pianist, recognised amongst musicians like Gustav Mahler (whom she apparently described as a "difficult character"), Antonín Dvorák, Josef Suk, and Vítezslav Novák. "I played especially Czech music, and they were thankful for what I did. Everywhere in the world I played Czech music. People loved it."

Even at the grand age of 107 Alice continued to play for three hours every day: "It's the most beautiful thing I have." Her favourite pieces were Chopins études and Schumann's Fantasia in C Major, which are also the ones she found the most difficult to play. But she started with Bach – "the philosopher of music." She worked hours to learn it by heart. "Bach is the hardest thing. Extremely complicated. I write it down sometimes, out of memory." 

"I have had such a beautiful life. And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love."

Alice Herz-Sommer expressed and conducted herself in the face of death and destruction with grandeur, spirit and humor. She died in London at the venerable age of 111 years,  Februari 23, 2014


  1. Thank you Emma for sharing this most remarkable information on such an incredibly inspiring and most impressive musician, artist and woman. I can truly see why she is an inspiration to you and our world for without women of courage, faith, extraordinary musical gifts and trust we would have very lonely and unfulfilled world.

    1. Thank you, Deborah, for such a thought-provoking comment. What is a world without music? I think that Rilke expressed it so well when he said: "Truly to sing, that is a different breath."