Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Saving Grace of Music

. . . [music] was the only thing to help me . . .
to have hope, a sort of religion actually.
Music is . . . God.
~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice Herz-Sommer turns 107 this month. The world's oldest survivor of the Holocaust, Herz-Sommer is the subject of an exquisitely moving documentary, Dancing Under the Gallows, directed by Malcolm Clarke and produced by Clarke and Nick Reed, Chris Branch, Larry Abramson, and Jasmine Daghighian. 

Music, yes, music saved my life.

Herz-Sommer, born in 1903 in Prague and by her mid-teens one of the city's best-known and highly regarded concert pianists, took up Chopin's fiendishly difficult 24 Etudes the day following her mother's deportation in 1942. Eventually, she, too, along with her husband and child*, was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt (Terezin), which is described in some histories, and in much too simple words, as a "ghetto camp" from which the Germans deported Jews to other ghettos, such as Lodz, or concentration or extermination camps, such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, in eastern Europe. Unlike the many thousands for whom Theresienstadt was just a brief stop-over, Herz-Sommer remained two years in the camp, because she possessed what the Nazis required after a day of killing: a talent for making beautiful music. Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Schubert were, Herz-Sommer said, her food.

Theresienstadt made for a bizarre scene of vibrant culture, a place where actors performed on a stage, visual artists drew or painted, composers wrote operas, writers gave lectures, and children made pictures and poems of hope. Herz-Sommer played in Theresienstadt's orchestra and gave more than 100 concerts. As a friend of hers, also a survivor, also a member of the orchestra, remarked, "As long as they wanted music, they couldn't put us in the death chambers."

In the documentary, which may be viewed here, Herz-Sommer speaks to the power of music that she defines as God. She still plays her piano every day. To hear her is to marvel at her human spirit . . . and her belief in forgiveness and love.

I never hate. Hatred only brings hatred.

* Herz-Sommer's mother and husband perished in the camps; her son Raphael survived, one of just 130 of 15,000 children there to do so. Herz-Sommer, who lives in London, survives him.

The BBC Radio produced two interviews with Herz-Sommer, both on YouTube: Part I and Part II.

"Holocaust Survivor Alice Herz-Sommer Playing Piano", Guardian, June 13, 2010

Alice Herz-Sommer on FaceBook

Dancing Under the Gallows on FaceBook and Twitter

Ria Higgins, "A Life in the Day: Alice Herz-Sommer", The Sunday Times, January 27, 2008

Melissa Muller and Reinhard Piechocki, A Garden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (Pan, March 2008)

We Want the Light (Allegros Films), written and directed by Christopher Nupen, in which Herz-Sommer and survivors Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and others also appear. The film is available on DVD. Its title is taken from a poem by Eva Pickova, 12 when she wrote it in Theresienstadt. A post about the film is here. (Pickova's poem "Fear" is readily accessible on the Web.)

Shoah Education, Terezin; also see The Music of Terezin

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Music of the Holocaust: Highlights from the Collection

Terezin Chamber Music Foundation

Also of Interest

Richard Newman and Karen Kirtley, Alma Rose: Vienna to Auschwitz (Amadeus Press, 2003) (Go here to read this book online.)

Christine Colin, "Through the Eyes of a Child: Using Works by Children to Understand the Holocaust", Idea, Vol. 12, No. 1, September 8, 2007


S. Etole said...

What a very powerful testimony ... "I never hate."

M.L. Gallagher said...

"I never hate. Hatred only brings hatred."


Laura said...

When I read the stories of how art saved individuals--both physically and emotionally--from the evils of this terrible part of history, I am always deeply moved.

The human spirit and the way it moves is a mystery. Isn't that such a beautiful thing?

Kathleen Overby said...

I was able to see a performance by children about the Children of Terezin. It was profoundly moving. We couldn't breath wanting to catch every word.

It is so hard to imagine giving your art, which is part of your heart to such a company. This DVD is something I very much want to see. Holocaust history is essential to

How does beauty sprout......anyways? Unfathomable.

This was such a tribute to 'entheos'.

n. davis rosback said...

107 woah!

David Rupert said...

Music can save a life? You've shown us that it does. A rich post with great links that will occupy my weekend. Thank you so much