A survivor of Theresienstadt and a world-class Czech pianist shares her amazing story of survival and triumph.
Now living in London since she relocated from Jerusalem to be closer to her only son (now deceased), Herz-Sommer is shortly turning 108, still playing the piano, disciplined and abstemious in her daily habits and fairly active, as Stoessinger records over interviews with her between 2004 and 2011. These are short segments that amplify important aspects of her life, such as her acquaintanceship as a young girl in Prague with Franz Kafka and his circle, her happy though too-brief marriage and successful early career as a concert pianist and teacher, the birth of her son in 1937 just as the Nazis were exerting their terror over the Jewish community in Prague and their abrupt deportation to Theresienstadt in 1943. Much of her biography is accessible from Melissa Müller’s Alice’s Piano (2012). However, what Stoessinger’s work reveals startlingly and firsthand are details of life in the concentration camp, especially how the musicians coped with the horrible conditions and even formed a vibrant community. Herz-Sommer held many concerts—this is no doubt what kept her from being deported to Auschwitz, as her husband was—and astoundingly, she had to play mostly from memory, like all the musicians. “Every concert played there,“ Stoessinger writes, “became a moral victory against the enemy.” The making of the propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City reveals the sadistic cynicism of the Nazis, who had promised the prisoner filmmaker leniency to make the film, then promptly deported him to Auschwitz when it was completed. Rounding out this work are memories from Herz-Sommer’s students and friends, reflections on favorite authors such as Spinoza, Rilke and Zweig and even recipes.
A sweetly affecting collection that will supplement more substantive biographies.