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Alice's Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice's Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer

by Melissa Müller

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How music provided hope in one of the world's darkest times—the inspirational life story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor

Alice Herz-Sommer was born in Prague in 1903. A talented pianist from a very early age, she became famous throughout Europe; but, as the Nazis rose to power, her world crumbled. In 1942, her mother


How music provided hope in one of the world's darkest times—the inspirational life story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor

Alice Herz-Sommer was born in Prague in 1903. A talented pianist from a very early age, she became famous throughout Europe; but, as the Nazis rose to power, her world crumbled. In 1942, her mother was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and vanished. In 1943, Alice, her husband and their six-year-old son were sent there, too. In the midst of horror, music, especially Chopin's Etudes, was Alice's salvation. Theresienstadt was a "show camp", a living slice of Nazi propaganda created to convince outsiders that the Jews were being treated humanely. In more than a hundred concerts, Alice gave her fellow prisoners hope in a time of suffering. Written with the cooperation of Alice Herz-Sommer, Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki's Alice's Piano is the first time her story has been told. At 107 years old, she continues to play her piano in London and bring hope to many.

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The harrowing tale of a Czech concert pianist's survival at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. At 108 years old in 2011, Alice Herz-Sommer is the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor, residing in Jerusalem since the Communist regime forced her from her Prague home in 1949. In this novelistic reconstruction of her life by her friend Piechocki and journalist Müller (Anne Frank: The Biography, 1998, etc.), Herz-Sommer is portrayed as the stronger-willed of twin girls born to a mismatched German-speaking Jewish couple in Prague in 1903. From a young age she was determined to master the piano. Her older sister included her twin sisters in visits with other German-speaking Jewish friends who formed the intellectual literary Prague Circle--e.g., Max Brod, Oskar Baum and Franz Kafka. A student at the German Academy of Music after World War I, Herz became a notable concert pianist and teacher, married businessman Leopold Sommer and had a son, Stephan, by the time the Nazis marched into Prague in 1939. While many of her family emigrated to Palestine, the Sommers remained in Prague, only to see their lives drained bit by bit. First, Herz's elderly mother was deported to Theresienstadt, after which she taught herself the Chopin Etudes out of despair; then the Sommers were deported as well in 1943. At the camp, Alice became a sought-after pianist for the many musical productions organized by the Free Time Organization, while Stephan was enlisted in children's choruses. Herz would often play the Chopin Etudes in concerts for the inmates, while Stephan acted in the SS propaganda film made to show the world what a "ghetto paradise" the camp was. Meanwhile, transports continued, Leopold was deported to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt was rumored to be evacuated. However, Alice was allowed to stay, giving her last concert at the camp in 1945. A miraculous journey of mother and son for whom music provided strength and nourishment.

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Alice's Piano

The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer

By Melissa Muller, Reinhard Piechocki

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Alice Herz-Sommer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-0192-9



"One happy, one sad ..."

Franta came out of his employer's office with a delivery note in his hand. A consignment of pharmaceutical scales had to be taken to the station that afternoon and put on a train for Vienna. On the way to the stables the servant paused to listen to the music coming from the drawing room of the flat in the courtyard. As she so often did after lunch, the heavily pregnant Sofie Herz was playing the piano.

Franta sat on a bench in the courtyard and looked up to the windows above. For nearly thirty years he had been employed by Herz Brothers. How many thousand times had he loaded the carriage since then, how often had he harnessed the horses and taken the consignment over the Moldau to the station? It was a part of his routine on that gray Prague morning in November 1903, like any other.

Sofie Herz was a precise interpreter of Bach. The little preludes and two-part inventions were among her favorites. In the last weeks of her confinement, however, she had often played Chopin, his poetic nocturnes and above all his sad waltzes. The melancholy melody reminded Franta of his master's marriage in 1886. The factory director Friedrich Herz was thirty-four then, almost twice the age of his bride, Sofie.

For nights on end Sofie cried herself to sleep. Barred from marrying the man to whom she had given her heart, she dreaded her wedding day. She had fallen in love with a student her own age, who shared her love of music and literature. Finally Sofie bowed to her parents' will. Ignatz and Fanny Schulz were prominent merchants in Iglau and now a good match needed to be found for her. According to the Ashkenazi tradition a schadchen or marriage broker had to be entrusted with the business of finding the right man. Means and possessions, social class and position, knowledge and wisdom were the basis of a reasonable marriage among schejnen leit (the right sort of people), the wealthy. It was also assumed that love would blossom soon after the wedding. Consoling her daughter, Fanny told her, "Look at those miserable people who apparently wed for love; they are fickle and their marriages frequently end up in divorce. That is the proof."

The broker found his man 150 kilometers away from Iglau. Friedrich Herz lived in Prague, he was a well-built, good-looking man who understood responsibility. He was decent, warm-hearted, and had accumulated a modest wealth through his own industry. He was one of the most important producers of precision scales in the Habsburg Empire, from devices for goldsmiths and pharmacists to industrial scales to carry heavy weights. The only thing that the "director"—as those around him respectfully addressed him—lacked now to complete his happiness was a family. He was pleased with Sofie Schulz.

Sofie's contrariness was clear from the start—together with her indifference to the Jewish tradition in which she had grown up. At their wedding Sofie would not listen to the badchen, the entertainer that the bridegroom and wedding guests praised and laughed with until everyone was crying their eyes out, or the Kletzmermusik. She was deaf to the proceedings and let them pass her by, as Franta now recalled. She maintained a proud and upright posture as she was solemnly enthroned in her second chair and covered with a veil. Her delicate fingers clutched the bridal stool while a cousin declaimed the rights and duties of a married woman. She looked lovely in her white lace, coldly lovely.

All eyes were on Sofie as she was led forward by her retinue under her chupe —a canopy of shining gold brocade—and handed over to her future husband, the first blessing of the rabbi and the first sip of wine: "With this ring you are sanctified by the religion of Moses and Israel," Friedrich said as he placed the ring on her hand. She scarcely looked at her husband. Even the next seven blessings left her unaffected. The wedding guests waited in vain for the tears which would give some indication of Sofie's emotions—all part and parcel of ancient tradition.

Another sip of wine, then the groom crushed the glass chalice underfoot to cries of "matzeltow " from the guests. Splinters bring you luck, supposedly, even when the custom recalls the expulsion of the Jews and should symbolize the smashing of their joy through banishment. Sofie looked at the smashed goblet and could only see her happiness destroyed by the man to whom she was now wed.

Franta was stirred by Sofie's playing and respected her. She was a no-nonsense woman who spoke her mind. Sofie always had a kind word for him, perhaps because he was kind to her children, perhaps because he was the only one who recognized that behind her apparently tough facade, she knew what true beauty was. There might even have been a tacit understanding between the two of them that Franta could relax for a few minutes after his midday break and sit down on the bench in the courtyard to listen to Sofie's playing before getting back to his job.

All of a sudden there was a smell of burning. "Fire! Fire!" shouted Franta.

Franta's cry shattered Sofie's concentration. She was expecting her fourth child any day. She lurched toward the window from the piano. Flames were shooting out of one of the factory buildings. Workers were rushing in all directions and gathering before the burning workshop. No one dared go in.

Friedrich Herz got up from his short siesta on the sofa when he heard cries for help. His days were as regular as clockwork. He worked from six o'clock in the morning to six o'clock at night, six days a week. At midday he interrupted his work for exactly one hour, and walked up the few steps from his office on the ground floor to his flat on the first floor where the table was laid and his family were already sitting round it waiting for him. He had remained a modest, unpretentious man, despite his rise from a meager apprentice ironmonger to a successful businessman with several dozen employees.

Little was known about his origins. His father came from the small Bohemian village of Rischkau about fifty kilometers north of Prague and was a member of its Orthodox Jewish community. Thanks to the "new liberality" permitted to the Jews after 1848, he and his family left the ghetto for the outskirts of Prague in the hope of finding work to feed his wife and seven children. He found apprenticeships for two of his sons—Friedrich and Karl—in an ironmonger's shop. Friedrich was just twelve.

Friedrich's success would have been unimaginable had it not been for the reforms of Emperor Joseph II. Joseph's mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, had made the Jews the scapegoat for Austria's poor performance in the war against Prussia and decreed that "from this moment onward no more Jews will be tolerated in the kingdom of Bohemia."

Joseph II introduced the century of Jewish emancipation. Influenced by the European Enlightenment he issued his so-called Patent of Tolerance in 1781, first in Bohemia, and Prague in particular: the city where it is said there were more Torah rolls than in Jerusalem itself. It stipulated that "rich Jews" could lease land without interference from the guilds and they could turn their hand to trade and industry. Schools were to be established where Jews would be taught in German, for the emperor wanted to "Germanize" the elite in order to bind them politically, administratively and economically as tightly as possible to Vienna. The new Jewish upper class played a decisive part in the economic development that raised Prague from a small, provincial city to a tri-racial metropolis. By 1825, out of 550 merchants and traders 240 were of Jewish origin. Thirteen out of a total of fifty factories were in Jewish hands.

When the Jews received equal rights in 1867 their prospects once more decisively improved. Friedrich Herz had just turned fifteen and he exploited the new possibilities to the full. In the 1870s, together with his brother Karl and with the help of a private loan he created the firm Gebrüder Herz and built it up to become one of the biggest of its sort in the Empire. Karl died young, before Friedrich's marriage.


Friedrich stumbled down the stairs. Without a moment's hesitation, he ran into the burning workshop, turned off the gas pipe, and thereby prevented the flames from consuming his life's work.

* * *

A WEEK later, on 26 November 1903, Sofie went into labor. Friedrich placed great hopes on the birth of his fourth child.

Georg, the eldest son, was already fifteen and causing him concern. The child had been born with a club foot. At the beginning, Sofie had kept his disability a secret. Was it not a punishment for her frigid behavior toward her husband? Had she not threatened to throw herself out of the window shortly before the birth?

Irma was born three years later, but there was no question of a girl taking over the running of the business. The third child, Paul, was nine years younger than Irma, and his father's favorite, but his impetuous character and his tendency to daydream led Friedrich Herz to doubt that he would ever be capable of taking over the company. Friedrich hoped that the fourth child would be a boy.

That afternoon, to the annoyance of the midwife, Friedrich Herz stuck his head through the double doors to Sofie's bedroom again and again. It had been dark for some time, and Friedrich was pacing up and down uneasily in the flat. Finally the news of a successful birth was announced in the early evening.

"A boy?" cried Friedrich Herz, in an entreating tone.

He slumped when he heard the answer: "No, not a boy!"

With disappointment he said: "A girl ..."

The midwife again said: "No."

Not a boy and not a girl? Before he could come to his senses the midwife's voice hit him like a slap in the face: "Two girls!"

* * *

ALICE HERZ was born into Habsburg Austria a few minutes before her twin sister Marianne on 26 November 1903. As Marianne weighed only 1.9 kilos it was feared that she would not live long. Alice was 2.5 kilos, appreciably heavier. She looked altogether healthier and more robust, although later on she would grow much more slowly than her sister. Her mother was full of love for the weaker child and called her Mizzerl or Mizzi, and naturally gave her more attention and care. In spite of this, Mizzi remained all her life the anxious one; a pessimist who in her life always saw the dark side of things first. Alice, on the other hand, developed into a courageous person who was sure of herself. Very soon her mother would be heard to say "We don't need to worry about Alice; she will go her own way."

Although the girls not only thought differently and looked different, Sofie dressed them both in the same clothes. Their bright red bonnets could be seen from far off: the Herz twins are coming! Beside her twin sister Alice was less striking. Alice said that Marianne was as pretty as a picture: she had tender white skin, expressive dark eyes, a sweet little mouth and fabulous pretty black hair. Her mother often picked up her favorite child and hugged and kissed her, while Alice, who was more capable of dealing with life, looked on with her winning smile.

Alice heard few words of praise from her mother. Sofie reproached her children when they failed to do their schoolwork neatly or did something silly, but she found it hard to utter a phrase of encouragement. Alice became a remarkable creature of habit for one so young. Night after night with great pride and astonishing meticulousness she polished the family shoes: eight pairs in all—the parents, her brothers and sisters and even those of the Czech maid, Marie. And as if the five-year-old had not made enough of an effort, every morning she got up shortly after six and crept out to run a few doors down to the baker to pick up the family's order for bread and rolls. This was actually the maid's job, whose duties began at first light when she raked the oven and got the hot water ready for the family's morning wash. Alice, however, refused to give up her role as bread-runner. Her father praised her, but her mother continued to lavish all her attention on Mizzi, despite the fact that she never lifted a finger in the house.

Mizzi enchanted even the strangest of people. Or so it appeared to Alice—who was generally standing unnoticed next to her at the time. Aged six, the twins were out walking with their older sister Irma on Letna Hill in the Belvedere Garden, part of the nearby Crown Prince Rudolf Park, when an old friend of the family came up. Alice already had an idea what was going to happen. Enraptured with little Marianne the woman cried out: "My God, this child is lovely!" This time, however, Alice was ready to quip: "But I am cleverer!"

Soon Alice found a new way to win her mother's love. Every two weeks Sofie and her daughters were busy for four whole days doing the family laundry. The air in the large kitchen would be filled with steam and the smell of soapy water. Little Alice literally fell over herself to show her mother what an industrious washerwoman she was. She sorted out the bed linen and the articles of clothing; dark clothes had to be separated from light ones; silk from cotton. She helped to brush the clothes as they soaked and to rinse them. And she went up to the roof with Marie, where the clean clothes were hung out to dry. Alice could not be discouraged from pinning a few articles of clothing to the washing line. To do this she stood on her tiptoes on a wooden stool—risking life and limb in the process.

As there was no tap in the kitchen, bucket upon bucket of water had to be brought in from the hall. One day Alice's grandmother Fanny was coming down the stairs from her flat on the second floor when she ran into the little girl. Alice's face was bright red from the exertion of dragging a bucket filled to the brim with water across the hall to the kitchen. Fanny was a quiet, reserved woman who preferred to avoid conflict. This time, however, she lost her temper and gave her daughter a talking to: "Have you not noticed that you are turning your child into Cinderella? Can you not see that every child needs the same amount of attention and love?"

"You are a fine one to talk," her daughter exploded, "you who arranged my marriage, you speak of love?!"

Alice could not see what the bucket had to do with love, but uncertain as to whether she had been responsible for the fight between her mother and grandmother, she began quietly to sob. A word that she had never heard before seemed to play a role in the battle: mischpoche. In the war of words between the two women a few words of Yiddish had surfaced, possibly because they had become overexcited, perhaps to spare the children. The foreign-sounding words, the outraged tone and her feelings of guilt puzzled Alice.

Finally Sofie turned to her weeping child and gave her an affectionate cuddle:

"Alice, it is not your fault that we are having a row. I love you as much as I love Mizzi; only you are strong, I am proud of you. You will make your own way in life. Mizzi is weaker, and she is going to have a tougher job of it than you." And she stroked Alice's hair.

Her grandmother's final words kept going through her head: "You don't have to love your mother," she had told her daughter, "but you owe her derech-erez. Derech-erez." Then her grandmother left and went off in the direction of the Belvedere Gardens and sat down on her favorite bench. She was usually to be found there, come rain or shine, when she was not at home.

In an agitated frame of mind, Alice told her sister what had happened. "Do you know what derech-erez means?"

Mizzi shook her head.

"And what does mischpoche mean?"

She shook her head again.

So the two girls decided to ask their grandmother and ran off to find her. The park was only a few hundred meters from home but the twins were completely out of breath by the time they reached the bench.

"Grandmother," Alice panted, "tell us what mischpoche means?"

Her grandmother smiled: "Mischpoche means family and that is all of us together who belong to the family. Our family is daddy, mummy, grandmother, grandfather and the children."

"And derech-erez?"

"That means respect."

"Respect?" Their grandmother saw the question in Alice and Marianne's eyes.

"Respecting your parents means honoring them, acknowledging them." After a pause Fanny added, "Those are Yiddish words. Yiddish is my mother tongue and your mother's mother tongue. Yiddish is the mother tongue of most Jews in our country."

"Jews?" asked Alice.

Then, for the first time Fanny Schulz told her grandchildren of the Jewish people and the diaspora. The girls listened to her spellbound, as if it were a fairy tale.

Although the family celebrated Passover every year, their mother had never so much as alluded to the Jews, let alone allowed a Yiddish word to pass her lips. When Alice later used the word meschugge which she had picked up from other children, her mother gave her a firm dressing down: "Don't use it again." Sofie tried stubbornly to prevent anything that recalled her Jewish origins from reaching the children. For her, Judaism was a belief she had rejected. She felt she had good reasons. One was the Ashkenazi tradition which had been her misfortune and which had caused her unhappy marriage. Another was her conviction that the worrying and frequent outbreaks of anti-Semitism in the multiracial Habsburg Empire were chiefly directed against Orthodox Jews, taking their cue from perceived Jewish traditions. Even in the early twentieth century it was widely believed in Bohemia and Moravia that the Jews "needed Christian blood at Eastertide, and therefore slaughtered little children and virgins."


Excerpted from Alice's Piano by Melissa Muller, Reinhard Piechocki. Copyright © 2007 Alice Herz-Sommer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

MELISSA MÜLLER is an author and journalist living in Munich. Her collaboration with Traudl Junge became an international bestseller. She is also the author of Anne Frank: The Biography.
REINHARD PIECHOCKI is the author of a number of works of cultural history and a close friend of Alice Herz-Sommer's for many years.
ALICE HERZ-SOMMER, at 107 years old, is the oldest living Holocaust survivor. She lives in London.

Melissa Müller is the author of numerous books on the history of the Third Reich. Her biography of Anne Frank has been translated into eighteen languages to date. Müller lives in Munich with her family.

REINHARD PIECHOCKI is the author of a number of works of cultural history and a close friend of Alice Herz-Sommer’s for many years. He is co-author of Alice's Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer.
ALICE HERZ-SOMMER, at 107 years old, is the oldest living Holocaust survivor. She lives in London.

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