Jewish Journal

Survivor, 110, dies as film on her life vies for Oscar

by  Tom Tugend

February 24, 2014 | 1:05 am

Alice Herz-Sommer at the piano -- photo by Shahar Langlev

Alice Herz-Sommer, at 110 the oldest known Holocaust survivor, died Sunday (2/23) in London, after starring in a documentary on her life up for a possible Oscar win on March 2.

Her death in a London hospital after a brief illness was confirmed by her grandson, Ariel Sommer, who told Reuters that “Alice passed away peacefully with her family at her bedside.”

Born in Prague in 1903 into an upper class Jewish family, which counted Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler among its friends, Herz-Sommer was known as much for her triumphs as a concert pianist as for her indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality.

After marrying and giving birth to a son, her pleasant artistic life was shattered with Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia.

In 1943, she was deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto, along with her mother, husband, and then six-year old son Raphael (Rafi).

[More: At 110, holocaust survivor finds sustenance in music]

She and Rafi survived two years at the camp, during which she performed in more than 100 concerts for the inmates. However, both her mother and husband perished in the Holocaust.

After liberation, she moved with her son to Jerusalem and lived there for 37 years as a pianist and teacher. When her son, a cellist, moved to London, she joined him there.

In her last two months, she no longer gave interviews, but in a short conversation in early February with The Journal, conducted mainly in German, she attributed her upbeat outlook to having been born with optimistic genes and a positive attitude.

The documentary about her life, “The Lady in No.6: Music Saved My Life,” was filmed inside her small flat in North London, dominated by an old Steinway piano.

Director Malcolm Clarke and producer Nick Reed of “The Lady in No. 6” said in a joint statement, “Telling Alice’s story was a life changing experience for everyone who worked on the film…We can all learn so much from this amazing woman.”

The film’s interviews were based and largely conducted by Caroline Stoessinger, a New York concert pianist, and published in her book, “A Century of Wisdom.”

“Alice doesn’t look back, she has no anxieties,” Stoessinger observed before her friend’s death. “Even in Theresienstadt, she never doubted that she would survive.”

According to an entry on producer Reed’s website, cited by Reuters, Herz-Sommer remained upbeat until the end.

She is quoted as saying, “I think I am in my last days, but it doesn’t really matter because I have had such a beautiful life. I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times…Yet, life is beautiful and I have so much to learn and enjoy, I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.”

“Lady in No. 6” is scheduled to screen through Feb. 27 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, together with the four other Oscar nominees in the short documentary category.

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