Skip to main content

Alice Herz-Sommer.  108 years old.  Survivor of Terezin Concentration Camp.  Concert Pianist.  A treasure.

Here she is, at the young age of 106, playing the Beethoven Moonlight Sonata on what I think is her home upright piano.

This might be a short diary because I'm starting late without any of my usual bookmarks.  The good news is that I finally have my regular computer and files back.  (yay, wooHOO rah rah, etc.)  I've also learned to never buy MSI motherboards, and to never, never, ever, ever buy anything from the corrupt cesspool called Newegg.  Now I'm running on a Gigabyte Z77-DSH motherboard that I got for a very good price on Amazon.  I was surprised Amazon had such a great selection and prices, cheaper than the usual places that I tried first.  And I've never had them give me the same kind of guff on returns as that aforementioned cesspool.

Alice Herz-Sommer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, a place we've talked about at length in another diary, in 1903.  

Her friends and family either escaped or were deported to concentration camps before 1943, the year that she was sent to Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt) with her husband and six year old son.  

During World War II it served as a Nazi concentration camp staffed in equal numbers by German Nazi guards and their ethnic Czech collaborators. Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered there and over 150,000 others (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before then being sent to their deaths on rail transports to Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in Poland, as well as to smaller camps elsewhere.
Terezin is sometimes referred to as a ghetto rather than a concentration camp, meaning it was an enclosed no-escape Jewish community.  That's not completely accurate.  The Nazis set up Terezin to be a model camp which they could show the Red Cross to prove that they were treating Jews well.  When the Red Cross was there, they were.  In actuality, it was a waystation to Auschwitz.  The population was made up primarily of Jewish artists like Alice.

One of the stories of Terezin, both bittersweet and grotesque, is the story of the children's opera, Brundibar, that was composed and first performed at Terezin by the Jewish composer Hans Krasa.  A segment of it here:

I don't want to be too crass by being musically analytical, but it's very good music!  Krasa was obviously influenced by the extended tonality of German 20s pop music such as Kurt Weill's.  But how can one listen to it, knowing the context?  

Sometimes we listen to things not to be entertained but because they are important and should be heard.

I see that Krasa also had a 1923 symphony.  I'd like to find out more about that.  From what I heard, it sounded good.

In 1944, the Germans made a propaganda film about Terezin.  It was never shown publicly.  Here is a small surviving section, which includes a scene of the camp orchestra performing.

Here's a trailer for the film in production, They Played For Their Lives.  Please note they are taking donations to complete their film.  It includes scenes from Terezin, and conversations with Alice Herz-Sommer.  

Alice: "... And we knew in the evening we will play.  This fact gave us hope.  And more than this, we were dear to God.
Again, I lost my bookmarks that I prepped for the diary when I switched over, so I'll be sloppy and paraphrase from memory.  In one clip, she commented that the Nazis committed a sin against MUSIC.  

That's a powerful idea.  Maybe it seems more powerful because it echoes something I have thought in more or less similar terms while writing some of these diaries.  It's a strange concept, a sin against BEAUTY.  A classic use of language in a way to say something otherwise linguistically not very meaningful.  Is BEAUTY something you can commit a sin against?  It's a lame attempt to describe a terrible wrongness in a situation already fraught with so much wrongness it seems unnecessary.  But if you sense that some things are vital expressions of some essence of humanity's soul, oh yes, a sin against that... that might be a very terrible sin.  A less immediate sin.  A taint on the soul of people already willing participants in murder.

Alice writes in the book, Alice's Piano, by Melissa Muller (quoted from an excerpt on Huffpost):

Since my childhood music has been my real home. It provided me with security when I had to confront my first inner torments and through it I found support, when death robbed me of my loved ones. Its meditative power provided me with the determination to cope first with the fascist and then the communist dictatorships that declared me and others like me subhuman.

When, in the early summer of 1942, my seventy-two-year-old mother was issued with a deportation order and I had to go with her to the assembly point and say goodbye to her for the last time, I was out of my mind. How was it possible to tear an old lady away from her world with nothing more than a rucksack on her back and send her to a concentration camp? Even to this day I can clearly hear the inner voice that spoke to me: ‘Practise the Chopin Études, they will save you.’

Although Chopin’s Études are among the most difficult pieces ever written for the repertoire, I began to learn them immediately. They were my refuge but they made huge demands on my discipline and strength of will, which I had not experienced before. In my despair I had chosen an ambitious project, but they provided me with hours of freedom in a world which was collapsing about me.

Every day for a year, I knuckled down to this seemingly insuperable task and mastered all twenty-four of them before I myself, my husband and our then six-year-old son were also deported to Theresienstadt. There I gave more than a hundred concerts for my fellow prisoners, and at more than twenty of them I played the Études.

She played them FROM MEMORY.

In 1944, while still united at Terezin, Alice's husband, Leopold, was sent on to Auschwitz, and later to Dachau, where he died.  Her mother, who had been a friend of Gustav Mahler, was deported onward to Treblinka, where she died.

She was able to stay united with her six year old son Raphael, one of the boys who performed in Brundibar.  Out of 15,000 who entered the camp, only 130 survived, and he was one.  They were liberated by the Red Army on May 9, 1945.  She wrote: "When I came back home it was very, very painful because nobody else came back. The whole family of my husband, several members of my family, all my friends, all the friends of my family, nobody came back. Then I realized what Hitler had done."

Her sister, however survived, even though they weren't aware of each other.  Unable to communicate, her sister heard her live for the first time since the camps, performing on the radio.

Quite a life.

Alice at 108, talking about life and music:

Two hours of practice in the morning.  Two hours of practice in the afternoon.  "Everywhere you look, there is beauty."  Such a treasure.

NEXT WEEK: Next week we'll try to have something REALLY GOOD.  I don't know what it is, but I can guarantee you, we're gonna KNOCK IT RIGHT OUT OF THE BALLPARK, whatever it is!  I'd say what I think I'll post but I don't want to jinx myself.

ALSO: Tomorrow I'll have a diary up for Diana in Nova's BOOKS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE series, about Philip K. Dick's book, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.  [It is posted HERE NOW.]  It will include some music by John Dowland and a ridiculously wide-ranging discussion of AI and logic and science and philosophy and Chinese poetry and embarrassing personal revelations.

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 07:35 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, History for Kossacks, An Ear for Music, and Community Spotlight.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Magnificent (9+ / 0-)

    Thank you for sharing this lovely music and this powerful story.


    Zen is "infinite respect for all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility for all things future."--Huston Smith's Zen Master

    by Ree Zen on Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 07:42:42 PM PDT

  •  Terezin was also where The Emperor of Atlantis (9+ / 0-)

    one-act opera was composed and performed:

    Worth noting that the Nazi film you linked has the macabre name of "The Führer Gives the Jews a City".  It was part of a larger propaganda package that included live productions for the International Red Cross.   Morbid stuff.  I show my students every year, and they're always horrified.  Somehow the forced cheer is so much harder to take than a straightforward doc would have been.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 07:55:23 PM PDT

    •  You had seen that before? (9+ / 0-)

      I hadn't.  I had never heard of Alice before last week, when I read about her through a post on Andrew Sullivan and started following all the links.  (And that was before the borrowed laptop died on me, with all my bookmarks.  Everything fixed now!)

      I saw the full documentary of the film, the longer 20 minute version on  It has a dark little treasure trove of nazi propaganda films and books.  Before I saw the splash page, I wasn't sure at first if it was a Nazi fan site or a holocaust documentation site, but decided in retrospect it was the former but also through accident the latter.  I read a whole (shiort) book on there about eugenics and the master race which quoted Nietzsche.  I was thinking before that of writing a diary about Nietzsche and might find that useful to show how his ideas, wrongly or correctly, were appropriated.

      •  Yeah, I've seen it a few times, unfortunately. (7+ / 0-)

        I haven't shown the whole film in class, but I usually show clips of it, plus Emperor of Atlantis.  With the opera, it's a similar thing to what you describe in the diary, where even though I like it quite a bit it feels weird to give an aesthetic critique to something made under those circumstances.  

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 08:19:24 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  What a story (6+ / 0-)

    And the mixed emotional responses to it.

    Oh the humanity of it; in its ugliness and its beauty.

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 09:17:02 PM PDT

  •  Thank you! (6+ / 0-)

    Just...thank you!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 09:27:56 PM PDT

  •  OMG, I'm so glad you are back and working (5+ / 0-)

    again. This is a great diary, and I am doubly struck with irony tonight, for at age 77, I have finally started listening to Wagner and ignoring all the bad stuff, just like Alice says at 108, looking for the beauty, and falling off my chair with the Tristan chord and the Parsifal, and all. Then I find your diary and am jolted back into WWII, when we did not listen to Wagner and heard bad stuff about anything German.  It has taken me a lifetime to come to the same place that Alice has found, although I never suffered the losses and pain that she did. But the Beauty, D., I don't think we can kill it, although I guess it's possible to insult it.

    I liked the children's opera segment; yes, a lot like Weill.

    Looking forward to next week, and I'm so glad you posted this evening. Thank you.

    W. H. Auden: "We must love one another or die."

    by martyc35 on Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 10:02:14 PM PDT

    •  Germany created some of the greatest (5+ / 0-)

      music of human civilization.  Germanic composers, I should probably say, to be more accurate.  What the Nazis did doesn't take away from any of that.  It can only give us reason to marvel at the enormous gulf between creators of beauty and the destroyers of life in the same culture.  

      Wagner's a bit of a special case.  His music is too beautiful and important to ignore.  I'd cover him more often if I was more of an opera geek, but I don't know enough about opera to do diaries about it.

      •  Out of strife sometimes great art emerges... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        In the 70s, I was a member of Amnesty International, and our group worked on trying to get the Soviets to release prisoners of conscience whose only crime was trying to do their art in that repressive society. I was reminded of that when I ran into this lovely video from Russia. May we never go back:

        W. H. Auden: "We must love one another or die."

        by martyc35 on Fri Sep 14, 2012 at 03:18:55 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  VERY glad you're back, Dumbo (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    martyc35, rl en france, Dumbo, remembrance

    Amazing story, you didn't need bookmarks, and I'm about to republish this to History for Kossacks, because you can't say nie wieder often enough, ESPECIALLY not during this season of the High Holy days.

    You are indeed the master!

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent, and we are all Wisconsin.

    by Dave in Northridge on Thu Sep 13, 2012 at 10:37:48 PM PDT

  •  Another odd connection, "City for the Jews", (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Xapulin, Dumbo, remembrance, martyc35

    the in-camp documentary referenced above was directed by another inmate Kurt Gerron, one of the stars of the Marlene Dietrich film "Blue Angel"

    Of course he didn't have much choice in the matter and was sent to Auschwitz soon after.

  •  I have several albums of Terezin music (6+ / 0-)

    Here is a performance of Gideon Klein's String Trio, composed at Terezin in 1944.  I deliberately chose a live performance to post.  I disagree with you Dumbo.  We should perform the music from Terezin over and over.  These composers and the performers, deserve to be remembered and celebrated.  What happened to them, if anything, demands that we remember them.


    Ancora Impara--Michelangelo

    by aravir on Fri Sep 14, 2012 at 07:15:17 AM PDT

    •  Thank you so much for linking to this (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Although they are gone, their essence still lives on in their beautiful music.  They speak to us of beauty, so meaningful to them, from beyond the grave and we can still hear their voice.

      Evolution IS Intelligent Design!

      by msirt on Fri Sep 14, 2012 at 07:47:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks Dumbo for this heart-rending diary ... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    codairem, Dumbo, remembrance, martyc35

    ... it seems you've been delving deep into mid 20th century European history lately and finding all kinds of obscure treasures. I don't think it's possible to separate art and artists/creators from the context of their lives and times as it's a symbiotic relationship. Aesthetics are fluid, and beauty is continually being redefined. You promised that your next installment about classical music will "hit it out of the ballpark," but actually your diaries lately have all been homeruns.

    Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me, "how good, how good does it feel to be free? " And I answer them most mysteriously, "are birds free from the chains of the skyway? " (Bob Dylan)

    by JKTownsend on Fri Sep 14, 2012 at 08:04:57 AM PDT

    •  Sometimes I'm prouder than other times. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      remembrance, JKTownsend, martyc35

      I thought the Brahms #1 diary was pretty damn good.  :)

      My favorite non-Dumbo Thursday diary so far is the one Samer did on Hovahness.

      I still want to do one on Dvorak's American Quintet.  It's an old chestnut for a lot of us, but many more have never heard it.

  •  Thank you so much! I need to find out more about (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    remembrance, Dumbo, martyc35

    this tribute to the human spirit under the most terrible of circumstances. It's like Victor Jara, singing in the national soccer stadium in 1973 as the Pinochet regime thugs were torturing him and preparing to kill him, a story which I've always found gives me faith in human courage and integrity, as shown to us by the least powerful.

  •  Sorry about that Newegg experience (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    martyc35, Dumbo

    I've ordered from them a dozen times and have had nothing but top-notch service. Delivery times blazing fast, products packaged properly...there was one time where some memory came only in bubble wrap, not the plastic blister packaging I expected. But never anything less than a five-star experience.

    I'm glad you got your components finally, though. TigerDirect is also a good place for buying parts from what I've read.

    •  My first thought was Tigerdirect, as well. (0+ / 0-)

      I headed there first and priced things.  Then found a better deal for the same motherboard at Amazon, almost a third less.  It depends on what they're pushing at the time, I guess.

      After I started checking out Amazon, I looked at their other motherboards... They seemed to have a bigger selection of Gigabyte motherboards in my price range than Tigerdirect.

      Let me tell you why I'm pissed at Newegg now.  I might expand on this saturday at SNLC.  That was my original plan...

      I bought an MSI motherboard from them last January.  It worked for a couple of days then failed.  I spent some weeks diddling it every which way to assure myself it was the motherboard (during which time, no music diaries from me, poor Dailykos), and finally sent it back with an RMA.  They told me that I could get a replacement back more quickly if I were to purchase a second motherboard of the same type and then get a refund rather than a replacement.  So I ordered a second motherboard, which arrived before I got my refund.  I plugged it in, and, much to my relief (I hadn't been sure whether it was the motherboard causing the trouble) everything came to life just fine.  Yay!  Back in business...

      BUT...  They refused the refund on the first board, which was now conclusively proven defective.  They said that it had bent CPU pins by the customer, which was bullshit.  The board came back.  I now had two boards.  I inspected it as best I could and found no problem.  I called them up and tried sweet talk and bluster to get them to take it back for a second look or for them to give me store credit.  No dice.  I threatened to do a credit card chargeback, which would have got me my money back and cost them an additional fee from the credit card company.  They said go ahead; we'll just remove you permanently from our customer files.

      I didn't do that.  I backed down and ate the board.  Hey, I could be wrong, right?  

      Well, the second board, same identical MSI board worked up until August and then died in the exact same way.  I woke up one day and it had no video output either from the onboard graphics or from any graphics card I put in it.  (And, by the way, the speaker pins of neither board never worked -- I thought the speaker was just dead).

      Same exact death.  Out of curiosity then, I went to Newegg to look up the same motherboard to see what comments were.  There were a bunch of complaints from customers that had got a dead board and had tried to return it to be turned down because of BENT CPU PINS.  So I'm not the only one they fucked with that way.

      This board:

      The new Gigabyte board z77-d3h fired up right away and the case speaker worked.  I'm going to guess from that that the MSI motherboard either has wrong motherboard pinout specs on the speakers or it just has a design flaw.  The overall design was sloppy in other ways, too, with port sockets all over hell and getting in the way of things.  The GA board has a cleaner layout.

      So I'm forever fed up with both MSI and Newegg.  Newegg in particular because I thought that was rude bullshit for a new purchase and it made my life hell.

  •  cry (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    martyc35, Dumbo

    I'm still crying after listening to the Moonlight Sonata--and realize that I always shall whenever I hear this again.  Thank you for sharing this--the most poignant video I've ever watched.  Thanks to Beethoven.  God bless  Alice-- God damn hatred.

    Apres Bush, le deluge.

    by melvynny on Fri Sep 14, 2012 at 10:55:23 AM PDT

    •  If you follow some of the suggested (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      links that Youtube displays when it's over, it will lead you to a number of other clips of Alice, many of them playing the piano, interleaved with her comments on life.  She's a beautiful woman.  

  •  thanks! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    martyc35, Dumbo

    very beauitiful sending link to my Mom

    "You can't think and surf at the same time" Yogi Surfdog

    by surfdog on Fri Sep 14, 2012 at 11:44:17 AM PDT

  •  Excellent diary! Outstanding (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Just read a book about two Russian Jewish sisters who played for the Germans in camps.  They were pretending to be just Russians, so they survived.

    What a remarkable woman Alice Herz-Sommer is!  She's still alive, I take it?

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Sat Sep 15, 2012 at 06:55:08 AM PDT

    •  Yup. Her 108th birthday (0+ / 0-)

      was fairly recent, I understand.  There were stories about her simultaneously at Andrew Sullivan and Huffpost, which was how I became aware of her.  She's been a star on the map for a long time.  I just had never noticed her.  There are many books and documentaries about her and online interviews of her over the years.

      I hope she keeps on going and sets some more world records!

      My mom is 92.  I told her about Alice Sommer-Herz and all of this just a while ago.  I wrote a diary about my mom a few years ago that made the rec list, the highest-recced diary I've written, "My Mother Baked Biscuits for Nazis." HERE.

      •  Dumbo, THANK YOU for showing me your diary (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        about your mother!  What a wonderful woman she is!

        I like your philosophy, your point of view, your writing style, and your choice of music.  I would ask you to marry me except that (1) I'm old as the goddamn hills; (2) I am already happily married; and (3) you're probably perfectly happy with your current relationship.

        I see that your diary received 422 recs.  I'm not surprised!  I rec'd it myself and it took the rec, although I didn't think it could happen five years later.

        "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

        by Diana in NoVa on Sat Sep 15, 2012 at 05:58:59 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site