Finding peace during and after a horrific life-event is often terrifically difficult. When a person lives through something as awful as the Holocaust, it is doubly traumatizing. Alice Herz-Sommer spent two years in the Terezin transit camp, but found solace in music, specifically that of the piano.
Alice Herz was born in Prague on Nov. 26, 1903, into a German-speaking secular Jewish family. She began piano lessons at 5 and at 16 embarked on conservatory studies in Prague; by the time she was an older teenager, she was giving well-received concerts throughout Europe. In 1931, she married Leopold Sommer, and they had a son 6 years later.
Musical Inspiration in Dark Times
In 1939, the Nazi Invasion was imminent, and Herz-Sommer was forced to endure one of the most heartbreaking situations ever imagined. In what she called "the lowest part of my life," she escorted her mother to the deportation center in Prague, from where she would be sent to a transit camp and killed.
Later, Herz-Sommer, her husband, and their young son were all sent to Terezin transit camp. Her husband got moved to Auschwitz and on to Dachau where he, too, parished. Herz-Sommer, however, found sustaining power in music, specifically that of Frederic Chopin. While at Terezin, she began a deep study of Chopin’s Études, the set of 27 solo pieces that are some of the most technically demanding and emotionally impassioned works in the piano repertory. And it saved her life.
The Terezin transit camp had an orchestra drawn from their ranks, and they literally played for those who wanted them dead. Astonishingly, Herz-Sommer played over 100 concerts in Terezin, keeping herself and some of the prisoners alive through the music. One night, a young Nazi officer stopped her and thanked her for her music, and said he'd make sure that she and her son were spared from being sent to a death camp.
When the war ended, Herz-Sommer and her son relocated to Israel, and many years later, in 2001, she again found herself being sustained by music when her son died of an aneurysm. At 64, she immersed herself once more in the piano, and, even after advancing age had immobilized one finger on each hand, Mrs. Herz-Sommer reworked her technique so she could play with eight fingers. She continued playing until she died in 2014 at a remarkable 110 years of age.
Secret to Success
Alice Herz-Sommer used music to keep herself active and fresh right up until the end of her impressive, long life. She used it to find happiness at the saddest of times, and when her body began to fail her, she adapted and persevered. It is hard to imagine a more inspirational and admirable human being. When one can overcome the most difficult of hardships, it is indeed exceptional; when that person can do it and live an extraordinarily long life, it is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
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