Friday, February 28, 2014

Alice Herz-Sommer, 1903-2014

Amid the general misery on offer from the headlines these days is this bright spark of hope, in an obituary, of all places. But it chronicles the life of an extraordinary woman of such wisdom and courage that it's by far the most heartening thing I've read all week. 

Alice Herz-Sommer has just died at age 110. She had a life of glory and tragedy. As a girl growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, she met Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka (Mr. K. was "slightly strange," she said). She was a dedicated lifelong pianist of great ability, and it was her devotion to Chopin that, as the obituary says, literally kept her alive. She and her husband and son were interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Her husband was sent on to Dachau, where he died, but Alice and her son survived because one of the German officers at the camp, who admired her playing, placed them under his protection. After the war, she returned to Prague, but the anti-Semitic atmosphere was so dense (after the war!) that she moved away, and finally settled in London.

We should take her words to heart. “I am by nature an optimist,” she said. “But I am pessimistic about future generations’ willingness to remember and care about what happened to the Jews of Europe.” She was right to be pessimistic, alas. But for this moment, let's celebrate her extraordinary life. With some Chopin, perhaps? 

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