Friends of the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor this week recalled her as a “ray of sunshine” who “loved everyone”, writes Justin Cohen, as the makers of a film on her life voiced hopes that this weekend’s Oscars would bring her remarkable story to the attention of millions.
Prague-born Alice Herz-Sommer, who had lived in Belsize Park, passed away last weekend at the age of 110. With the help of her musical talents, she and her son Stephan survived two years in Theresienstadt where she gave more than 150 concerts before the camp’s liberation in 1945.
Her incredible life story was captured in the documentary The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved my Life, which is up for the best short documentary Oscar at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. Speaking from Los Angeles ahead of the ceremony, the film’s producer Nick Reed described Alice as “A spectacular woman. She made you feel: ‘I need to be a better person; I need to do more good things’. Each time we learnt more about her journey she became more incredible.”
“One other thing that I got from Alice was that we’re all born with a certain amount of energy. Spend some of that energy hating somebody or being stressed, then that energy is being taken away from our lives. If we take all our energy and put it towards good things, we’ll all live longer and happier.”
He added: “If we’re lucky enough to win the Oscar, the whole world will know for a few seconds about this incredible lady. If we told her we’d won an Oscar for a film about her life, she’d probably look at you and give you a big smile.”
Alice’s mother and husband were both deported to Auschwitz during the Shoah and she would never see either again. She later also had to cope with the loss of her son at the age of 64. But she remained unswervingly positive in her outlook. “I think I am in my last days but it doesn’t really matter because I have had such a beautiful life,” she said on the film’s website. “And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love.”
Aish UK executive director Rabbi Naftali Schiff, who visited her regularly in recent years and at Chanukah lit candles with her, said: “Her trademark was her positivism. She was a real ray of sunshine and so interested in life. She was not an observant Jew but quintessentially Jewish in looking at the positive side of life and what life sends your way. She was satisfied with lot and not attached to material possessions. You can learn a lot from someone like that.”
He would usually turn up with a bunch of flowers and sometimes took others to see her including actress Maureen Lipman one one occasion and his own family on another. He recalled how spoke to reach of the youngsters one by one, asking their names and favourite subjects at school, before asking his wife, a genetics lecturer, about the subject. “Alice was remarkable, compelling, engaging,” said rabbi Schiff, who is engaged in Shoah education through JRoots.
Her devotion to music – she said that she only had to think of music to make her happy – was evident to all those who visited until her final days when the sounds of her playing could still be heard in the hall outside. And it wasn’t just her performances that could be heard. Hasmonean pupil and talented pianist Uri Shine regularly played for and was advised by Alice over the past year after approaching GIFT wanting to volunteer around the time of his barmitzvah. He said he felt “honoured” to have spent so much time with her. “She taught me to never give up whatever happens.”
As tributes and condolences poured in this week, including from Benjamin Netanyahu and Ed Miliband, others who came to know her spoke of the warm welcome she extended even to strangers. Jewish News reader Armand Rosen wanted to meet the lady whose story had so touched him in a documentary, but wondered as he made his way unannounced to her flat whether he was being too intrusive.
“I did not need to worry,” he said this week. “I peaked in, she looked up from her piano and beckoned us to enter. We felt truly enriched for having been in her presence. We visited her on two subsequent birthdays and each time she was warm, welcoming and inspiring.”
Among her other hobbies was said to be scrabble – for which could play in several languages. Announcing her death this week,”our world will be significantly poorer without her by our side. We mourn her loss and ask for privacy in this very difficult moment.” [divider]