Afternoon tea with Alice

I met Alice (Aliza) Herz-Sommer in her London flat in the summer of 2008. Through the generosity of an anonymous benefactor and funding from the University of Sydney (via the Kath O’Neil Scholarship, a special research scholarship for post-graduate Arts students), I travelled specifically to interview her, along with other Holocaust survivors living in the UK and Israel. Alice was a sprightly 103 years old at the time.

Alice is a gregarious and generous person, and receives visitors every day, offering coffee and cake at each sitting. After calling her from Australia to let her know I was coming specifically to interview her, I called again upon my arrival. She nominated a day and time, and I duly turned up that afternoon, digital recorder at the ready, and questions in hand and in mind.

At that time, Alice’s biography, A Garden of Eden in Hell (by Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki) had been recently translated by Giles MacDonogh and published in English.  I used this as the background for my various questions, but my primary focus was more upon her understanding and relationship with four most prominent composers in the Terezín ghetto (Theresienstadt): Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Krása and Pavel Haas.

Some fine documentaries have been made of her life and her remarkably optimistic perspective. In my opinion, the biography by Müller and Piechocki is a little sentimental and awkward in its portrayal of an extraordinarily complex, rigorous intellect as Alice (especially with the clumsy metaphorical pairing of emotional aspects of the Chopin Études with personalities from the Ghetto). However, this biography does contain excellent detail of Alice’s early life, her relationship with her loved ones, her time in Terezín and afterwards. Time will tell if the new biography by Caroline Stoessinger provides any new material.

I doubt that my interview with Alice was in any way more revelatory than any other interview done. However, two things stood out in our discussions. The first was the emphasis she placed on protecting her young son Rafi during incarceration in the ghetto. She spoke at length about his musicality in utero and at even at the age of three, listening to Robert Schumann’s Mondnacht (Op. 39 No. 5) from the Liederkreis song cycle, and crying at the beauty of the music. Just in case you are curious, here is the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing this, accompanied by Wolfgang Sawallisch.

The second remarkable account was the method by which she coped during perhaps her lowest point during the war: accompanying her 73 year old mother in 1942 to the place of deportation from Prague. On the way back, a revelation came to Alice, almost Paulian in character. This is what she said to me at the time:

” now, even after 70 years I believe, I remember the place where it happened, near our house.  I had to stop, and like an inner voice spoke to me in my depression; I was so unhappy.  An inner voice spoke – not the doctor.  I went to the doctor – I couldn’t eat.  Not the baby, not nothing can help yourself – only you can you help. And at the same moment … ‘ 24 Études by Chopin ‘.  So I was running home, and from this moment, two years, hundreds and hundreds of times, I can’t tell you – I didn’t stop playing and playing and playing.  What is interesting – nowadays, in the time of technology where everything goes so quickly, there is not a single composer which composed so difficult for piano as Chopin.”

I mentioned earlier that Alice regularly serves coffee and cake to all her afternoon visitors. She has an extraordinarily regimented routine. Mornings comprise of a walk around the block, followed by 2-3 hours of piano work, receiving visitors in the afternoon, and quiet time at night. The flat is modest but fulfills her needs. She does not eat cake, nor does she drink coffee, tea or alcohol. She eats one meal a day – a nourishing chicken stew. She is often interviewed about her longevity (asking me at one point whether I had ever met anyone as old as her), and is also approached by scholars interested in Franz Kafka (she knew the writer as a friend of the family).  By the end of the interview she was asking me about my musical life and the encouragement that I received from my mother! It was one of the most memorable conversations I have had, and I continue to be grateful to those who made it possible.

Alice celebrated her 108th birthday last year, and is still going strong. Here’s one of her most recent interviews, made with the famous motivational speaker Anthony Robbins. Unfortunately, there are moments of inaccuracy and sensationalism, as always seems to happen in popular portrayal of  Holocaust narratives. For example: Alice didn’t write her biography – she was, of course, intimately involved, but the work is by Müller and Piechocki. Another strange inclusion in this clip are  images of death camps and emaciated survivors in the standard issue striped pyjamas. Terezín, although a hell-hole and a place of deprivation, misery and infection (33,000 people died of communicable diseases there between 1942 and 1945) was not a place of extermination. It was a ghetto, a place of concentration in the most literal sense, and for a time, a show camp and intended subject for future propaganda purposes. The third strange feature of the clip is the lack of credit of Alice’s friend who is interviewed, Zdenka Fantlová. But even with these inaccuracies (and I could probably mention more), it is still inspirational to listen to Alice’s words and ponder on the resilience of an optimistic spirit.

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