The (Piano) Keys To Her Survival

Centenarian Alice Herz-Sommer, the subject of two books, credits music with sustaining her at Terezin; other new Holocaust books also highlight women’s experiences.

04/10/2012
Jewish Week Book Critic
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At 108, Alice Herz-Sommer is believed to be the oldest living Holocaust survivor. Born in Prague, she watched her mother being deported to Terezin in 1942, and never saw her again. A year later, she was also deported there with her husband and son. By then, Herz-Sommer was an acclaimed pianist, and continued to play in the concentration camp, giving more than a hundred concerts to fellow prisoners and to the Nazis. Her husband was killed in the camp just before liberation.

Herz-Sommer credits her own survival, and that of her son, to music — she has said that it strengthened her innate optimism, nourished their souls and protected them from hate. Now, in her London home, she still plays piano and wastes no time on bitterness.

While growing up in Prague, Herz-Sommer knew Franz Kafka (who came to her family’s Passover seder) and Sigmund Freud. After the war, she moved to Israel, where she reunited with family, taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and became friendly with Golda Meir. At age 83, she moved to London to be close to her son Raphael Sommer, a successful cellist, and grandsons.

Two new books detail her remarkable life and spirit. “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor” (Spiegel & Grau/Random House) by Caroline Stoessinger, with an introduction by the late Vaclav Havel, presents her life as an inspiration to others. Stoessinger, a pianist and musical director, captures Herz-Sommer’s moral strength, sense of humor, modesty, independence, curiosity about people and abounding love.

A book first published in Germany in 2006, “Alice’s Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer” by Melissa Muller and Reinhard Piechocki (St. Martin’s), was originally titled “A Garden of Eden in Hell” and published in English translation in England in 2007. This is the first American edition. Included is a foreword by Alice Herz-Sommer and a brief note from her son, who died in 2001. Piechocki has been a friend of Herz-Sommer for many years, and Muller is a journalist.

“Music makes us humans rich,” Herz-Sommer writes in the introduction. “It is the revelation of the divine. It takes us to paradise.”

While she’s decades younger than Alice Herz-Sommer, Millie Werber is also an inspiring figure. “Two Rings: A Story of Love and War,” which she wrote with Eve Keller (Public Affairs) is a beautifully written memoir of surviving the Holocaust as a teenager. Werber, who now lives on Long Island, reveals the unlikely heroes of her life, and also a powerful and tragic wartime love story that she had kept hidden in the years since. Keller is a professor of English at Fordham University.

The cover image of “The Last Bright Days: A Young Woman’s Life in a Lithuanian Shtetl on the Eve of the Holocaust” edited by Frank Buonagurio (Jewish Heritage and YIVO) also hints at a love story: a striking young woman, 19-year old Beile Delechky, holds a small bouquet of flowers as she stands with a soldier leaning on his bicycle, in 1938. As in many photos taken in Europe before the Shoah, other details are no longer known.

Delechky was the town photographer of Kavarsk, Lithuania, 50 miles north of Vilna. She left alone for the United States in 1938, and brought with her hundreds of photos and her notebooks. In Cleveland and later in San Francisco, she spoke occasionally of the photos, but after her death her family found her full archive, including poetry and other writing. Her son-in-law, Frank Buonagurio, lovingly put this volume together, digitally restoring the photographs that attest to her artistic eye and appreciation of light, composition and emotion.

The photos include scenes of village life, friends posing near the Sventa River, Delechky’s grandfather’s apple orchard (he learned Talmud at night and filled in for the rabbi), a 1933 celebration of Lithuanian independence, the Jewish school, her parents and siblings, and other views of a time and place that is no more. The Jews of Kavarsk were all murdered in the Pivonia Forest on Sept. 5, 1941.

“I wanted to show these people in the midst of their lives,” Buonagurio said in an interview. “When you look at the photos now, their fate hangs over them, but when they were taken they were just living daily life.”

Through Delechky’s poems and also the photos of her taken by a friend, the viewer gains a sense that she was person with considerable presence at her young age. Her family thinks the man on the book jacket was a Jewish soldier serving in the Lithuanian army. In a poem called “(The Last Sunday) Tango,” she writes, “Give me a Sunday/A Sunday, just one/And after that the world can go under.”

Rochelle Saidel, founder and executive director of the Remember the Women Institute, documents the history of a Jewish community that was wiped out in a single day in a particular Nazi experiment, in “Mielec, Poland: The Shtetl that Became a Nazi Concentration Camp” (Geffen). On March 9, 1942, Nazis dismantled the southern Polish town, executing the elderly, deporting the able-bodied for slave labor and transporting the rest to Lublin, where they were later murdered in concentration camps. Soon after, the Nazis took over a Polish aircraft factory on the outskirts of the town and created a concentration camp. Powerfully presented, the book is based on rare photographs and documents, survivor testimony (few were able to escape) and war criminal transcripts. 

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