LONDON – Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest-known survivor of the Holocaust, died Sunday morning in London at age 110, a family member said.
Herz-Sommer’s devotion to the piano and to her son sustained her through two years in a Nazi prison camp, and a film about her has been nominated for best short documentary at next week’s Academy Awards.
Herz-Sommer died in a hospital after being admitted Friday with health problems, daughter-in-law Genevieve Sommer said.
We all came to believe that she would just never die, said Frederic Bohbot, a producer of the documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. There was no question in my mind, Would she ever see the Oscars.’
The film, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Malcolm Clarke, has been nominated for best short documentary at the Academy Awards next Sunday. Another producer on the film, Nick Reed, said telling her story was a life-changing experience.
Even as her energy slowly diminished, her bright spirit never faltered, Reed said. Her life force was so strong we could never imagine her not being around.
Herz-Sommer, her husband and their son were sent from Prague in 1943 to a concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin – Theresienstadt in German – where inmates were allowed to stage concerts in which she frequently starred.
An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent to Terezin, and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were moved on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most of them were killed. 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.
Yet she remembered herself as always laughing during her time in Terezin, where the joy of making music kept them going.
These concerts, the people are sitting there, old people, desolated and ill, and they came to the concerts and this music was for them our food. Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive, she once recalled.
When we can play it cannot be so terrible.
Herz-Sommer’s son, who changed his first name to Raphael after the war, made a career as a concert cellist. He died in 2001.
Although she never learned where her mother died after being rounded up, and her husband died of typhus at Dachau, in her old age she expressed little bitterness.
We are all the same, she said. Good, and bad.
Caroline Stoessinger, a New York concert pianist who wrote a book about Herz-Sommer, said she interviewed numerous people who were at the concerts who said for that hour they were transported back to their homes and they could have hope.
Many people espouse certain credos, but they don’t live them. She did, said Stoessinger, author of A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.
She understood truly that music is a language and she understood how to communicate through this language of music.
Anita Lasker-Wallfish, a friend and fellow concentration camp survivor, said Herz-Sommer was still lively during a visit last week.
She was a real optimist, she said, adding that the pair played Scrabble together until Herz-Sommer’s eyes failed her. She was feeling very unwell and she went to the hospital last Friday. I think she had enough.