London • Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest Holocaust survivor, died at age 110 on Sunday, a family member said. The accomplished pianist’s death came just a week before her extraordinary story of surviving two years in a Nazi prison camp through devotion to music and her son is up for an Oscar.
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, 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.
Herz-Sommer, her husband and her 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."
Though 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."
Herz-Sommer was born on Nov. 26, 1903, in Prague, and started learning the piano from her sister at age 5.
As a girl, she met the author Franz Kafka, a friend of her brother-in-law, and delighted in the stories that he told.
She also remembered Kafka saying, "In this world to bring up children: in this world?"
Alice married Leopold Sommer in 1931. Their son was born in 1937, two years before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.
"This was especially for Jews a very, very hard time. I didn’t mind, because I enjoyed to be a mother and I was full of enthusiasm about being a mother, so I didn’t mind so much," she said.
Jews were allowed to shop for only half an hour in the afternoon, by which time the shops were empty. Most Jewish families were forced to leave their family apartments and were crammed into one apartment with other families, but her family was allowed to keep its home.
"We were poor, and we knew that they will send us away, and we knew already in this time that it was our end," she said.Next Page >
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