LONDON – Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest Holocaust survivor, died at age 110 on Sunday.
The accomplished pianist’s death came just a week before her extraordinary story of survival through two years at a Nazi prison camp, which she claimed was made possible by devotion to music and her son, is up for an Oscar.
Herz-Sommer died in a hospital after being admitted Friday with health problems, daughter-in-law Genevieve Sommer said.
“We all came to believe that she would just never die,” said Frederic Bohbot, a producer of “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.”
The documentary, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Malcolm Clarke, has been nominated for best short documentary at the Academy Awards.
Herz-Sommer, her husband and her son were sent from Prague in 1943 to a concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin — “Theresienstadt” in German — where inmates were allowed to stage concerts in which she frequently starred.
An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent to Terezin, and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were later moved on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most of them were killed. Herz-Sommer and her son, Stephan, were among fewer than 20,000 who were freed when the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army in May 1945.
Yet she remembered herself as “always laughing” during her time in Terezin, where the joy of making music kept them going.
Though she never learned where her mother died after being rounded up, and her husband died of typhus at Dachau, she expressed little bitterness in her old age. “We are all the same,” she said. “Good and bad.”
Caroline Stoessinger, a New York concert pianist who wrote a book about Herz-Sommer, said she interviewed numerous people who were at the concerts who said “for that hour they were transported back to their homes and they could have hope.”
“Many people espouse certain credos, but they don’t live them. She did,” said Stoessinger, author of “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.”
Herz-Sommer was born on Nov. 26, 1903, in Prague and started learning the piano from her sister at age 5.
As a girl, she met the author Franz Kafka, a friend of her brother-in-law, and delighted in the stories that he told.
Alice married Leopold Sommer in 1931. Their son was born in 1937, two years before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Most Jewish families were forced to leave their family apartments and were crammed into one apartment with other families. Her family, however, was allowed to keep its home.
“We were poor, and we knew that they will send us away, and we knew already in this time that it was our end,” she said.
In 1942, her 73-year-old mother was transported to Terezin, then a few months later to Treblinka, an extermination camp.
“And I went with her, of course, till the last moment. This was the lowest point in my life. She was sent away. Till now, I don’t know where she was. Till now, I don’t know when she died — nothing. When I went home from bringing her to this place, I remember I had to stop in the middle of the street, and I listened to a voice, an inner voice: ‘Now nobody can help you — not your husband, not your little child, not the doctor.’ “
From then on, she took refuge in the “24 Etudes” of Frederic Chopin, a dauntingly difficult monument of the repertoire. She labored at them for hours a day.
She recalled an awkward conversation on the night before her departure to the concentration camp with a Nazi who lived upstairs and called to say that he would miss her playing.
She remembered him saying: ” ‘I hope you will come back. What I want to tell you is that I admire you, your playing, hours and hours, the patience and the beauty of the music.’ ” Other neighbors had stopped by only to take whatever the family wasn’t able to bring to the camp.
“So the Nazi was a human, the only human. The Nazi, he thanked me,” she said.
The camp’s artistic side was a blessing; young Stephan, then 6, was recruited to play a sparrow in an opera.
The opera was “Brundibar,” a 40-minute piece for children composed by Hans Krasa, a Czech who was also imprisoned in the camp. It was first performed in Prague but got only one other performance before he was interned.
“Brundibar” became a showpiece for the camp, performed at least 55 times, including once when Terezin, which had been extensively spruced up for the occasion, was inspected by a Red Cross delegation in June 1944.
In 1949, she left Czechoslovakia to join her twin sister, Mizzi, in Jerusalem. She taught at the Jerusalem Conservatory until 1986, when she moved to London.
Her son made a career as a concert cellist. He died in 2001.