August 1, 2014

Alice Herz-Sommer Made a Concentration Camp Beautiful to Save Her Son

Alice and Stephan/Raphael a few years after the war.  Photo courtesy of
I heard about a really amazing woman named Alice.  She survived the Holocaust and lived to be 110 years old.  But the most remarkable part of her story is how she was so happy throughout her life, although she had much to be sad about.  She chose to see the beauty in an often ugly world. 

Alice was living in Prague, Czeckoslovakia when Nazi Germany took over the city in 1939.  She had recently married her sweetheart Leopold and delivered her first child, a boy they named Stephan.  And she was a renowned pianist-- performing beautiful music to adoring audiences.  Her happy life changed as Hitler began to persecute the Jewish people because, although Alice didn't practice her religion, she was Jewish.

Hitler made it clear that he disliked the Jewish people immediately upon entering Prague.  As he had done in other cities he had invaded, Hitler began to destroy the Jewish people.  He took all of their possessions, including their businesses, he moved them into Ghettos, split up their families, and ultimately moved them to concentration camps where he could finish them off.  Only a small percentage of the Jewish people in Prague survived Hitler's treatment.  This was a dark time in world history.  But the adversity created many heroes like Alice.

Alice watched as her family members fled to America or were rounded up and sent to a camp.  When Alice, Leopold and Stephan were ordered to move to a camp in 1943, Alice decided to do all she could to help her 6 year old son Stephan survive.  Because Alice was a performing artist, she was placed in a camp called 'Theresienstadt.'  It was where they put people with performing abilities.  Rumors had been going around that Hitler was killing the Jews and he wanted the rumors to stop.  Hitler wanted to keep the world thinking that his regime was treating the Jews well.  If Hitler could film Jewish musicians performing classical music and show it to the world, he could keep fooling everyone. 

Leopold was an accomplished violinist, but because he worked as an accountant to support the family, he went to a regular work camp nearby and visited Alice and Stephan (who was allowed to stay with his mother.)   Alice, Leopold and Stephan were cold and hungry in their camps.  And they tried not to worry about what would happen to them and their loved ones.

For Stephan's sake, Alice looked for the good in everyone and everything in the camp.  She wanted to find it and to point it out to Stephan so he wouldn't be afraid or scarred by this awful experience.  She wanted him to survive and when he was freed, to still see the good in life.   She tucked him within her arms at night and gave him any extra food she could spare during the day.

Alice was assigned jobs like breaking rocks or washing clothes.  But for a half hour a day she was allowed to practice piano.  She and the other musicians were to perform concerts regularly, although they were given no sheet music to use.  Alice had to remember the difficult music she had learned before.  Fortunately, she was a devoted pianist, having practiced 4 hours a day before her internment in the camp.  Her memory served her well.  She put on complicated concerts weekly for the guards, prisoners and German dignitaries, receiving great praise for her technique and expression.

Being able to play her music brought great joy to Alice and Stephan.  The music she played was so beautiful that it transported them away from the dark, ugly, and heartless camp back to the happier places in their past.  The guards and the other prisoners had the same experience of feeling happier when she played.  Her music became an oasis in an awful place.  Alice told people, "It is music that takes us to paradise."

Alice's combination of looking for the good in their awful world, and bringing beautiful music into it worked!  Alice and Stephan survived and were freed when the camp was liberated in 1945.  Leopold didn't survive, so Alice devoted herself to raising Stephan to adulthood by herself.  They first returned to Prague, but moved to Jerusalem shortly thereafter.  Stephan grew up to be a famous musician like his mother, performing the Cello worldwide under his new name Raphael Sommer.  And Alice practiced the piano for 3-4 hours every day until she died at the age of 110.  The music she played brought her joy and made her world beautiful, no matter where she was.  She forgave all those who hurt her and looked forward to each day optimistically.  She said, “Every day in life is beautiful...every day!”

No matter what trials we are enduring, we can look forward to each day as a beautiful gift and enjoy it fully.  Heavenly Father loves each of us and will bless us through our experiences. 

Sources:  Muller, Melissa and Reinhard Piechocki, Alice's Piano The life of Alice Herz-Sommer.  St. Martin's Press.  New York. 2006.

Watch documentaries about her:  "The Lady in Number 6" and "Everything is a Present." 

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