Tuesday, October 1, 2013
The childhood memory of what may have been my intro to the Holocaust returned to me after watching the inspiring documentary about the world's oldest living pianist and Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, during Academy Award winner Malcolm Clarke's film "Alice: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved my Life". I remembered lying awake in my bed at about age six or seven while overhearing a disturbing conversation between my parents one evening. My father, a heavy man with a booming voice, thundered in the hallway after having watched a TV special about the Holocaust. "Can you believe they (the Nazis) melted the skin of innocent Jewish people and made from them soap and lampshades? Do you realize what those Germans did to our people? We're not talking terribly long ago either, Frances—"
My mother, in her barely audible whisper merely replied. "Shhh John, you'll wake Margie. It was tragic. Tragic. But we didn't know—"
"We knew, Frances, but we didn't want to know. The German doctors performed experiments on Jewish victims without drugs even. Why waste a drop of medicine on a Jew? And what about the children—what they did to twins—all in the name of scientific progress. Bastards!"
I thought I heard my mother whimper. I trembled till the bed itself seemed to quake. What my father had described was incomprehensible to me, but being the innocent child that I was, I imagined what I might have done to survive such an evil horror. I could only think of one thing. I would have taken out my violin, a quarter size, swept it under my chin, and played my heart out. I would have searched my soul for the sweetest, most soothing piece that I could think of. By playing such music, I imagined, I would have saved my loved ones, tamed the tormentors, and rescued all our people.
At age 109, Alice Herz-Sommer retains an unshakeable faith in the beauty of life and humanity, not unlike an awestruck child. She maintains that even the bad is beautiful, for it is part of life. To this day, Alice lives alone in her North London home, and practices the piano each day for about two hours. People from everywhere come to listen outside of her building. She is the lady in number six. To claim that music is and has always been her salvation would be an understatement, for music is Alice's religion. "You should thank Bach, Beethoven to Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. They've given us indescribable beauty. They made us happy."
Alice Herz-Sommer was born in 1903 in Prague. The Prague of her youth was a melting pot shared by Czechs, Germans, and a large Jewish population. Alice's family was secular and embraced the German culture. Her home was a cultural salon that attracted writers, musicians, scientists, and philosophers, including Franz Kafka. Alice began her piano studies at the age of three, and attended the premiere of Mahler's Second Symphony, as Mahler was also a family friend. By age 16, Summer Herz went to play for Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel and became his youngest pupil. By the 1930s Alice Herz became one of Prague's most celebrated pianists and was known throughout Europe. She married Leopold Sommer, a violinist, and in 1937 their son Rafael was born.
But her life was to change forever when Alice's 72-year-old mother was arrested and murdered by the Nazis. Devastated and grief stricken, Alice couldn't imagine surviving the loss of her dear mother. But a little voice inside of her told her to turn her attention to the piano to work on the Chopin Etudes. The inherent difficulties in the etudes absorbed her focus and little by little, renewed her strength. In 1943, Summer was sent to Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp along with her husband and young son. She was ordered to perform hundreds of concerts at Theresienstadt, for the camp was used for propaganda to show that the Germans were humane in their treatment to prisoners. Her son, Rafael, was allowed to take part in the Czech children's opera "Brundibar." Alice felt that as long as she had music, the camp would not be so terrible for her. Music was her food and her moral support. She gave every drop that she had in concerts, and witnessed the benefit music had for the sick and starved prisoners.
"The Lady in Number 6" is a testament to Alice Herz-Sommer's life affirming philosophy and belief in the power of music. The film includes historical footage of the cultural life of Theresienstadt and brings the viewer right into Alice's world at present. "Hatred brings only hatred," she says. At 109, Alice feels that she is the luckiest person alive. "Sometimes it happens that I'm grateful to have been there because I'm richer in life." By viewing "The Lady in Number 6" there's hope that we can all be enriched.