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.She played them FROM MEMORY.
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.
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.