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Dec 2006 Journal

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A life without bitterness or hatred (review)

ALICE HERZ-SOMMER: 'EIN GARTEN EDEN INMITTEN DER HÖLLE'. DAS JAHRHUNDERTLEBEN
by Melissa Müller and Reinhold Piechocki
Droemer, 2006, 430 pp., 19.90 euros

Music could always transport Alice Sommer into an autonomous paradisical world. This helped her when the real world turned hellish under the Nazis. The central part of this book is about those years.

She was born in 1903 into a Jewish, acculturated and German-speaking family in Prague. She started playing the piano at a very young age and at 21, made her debut as soloist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer; their son Stephan (later to be called Raphael) was born in 1937.

With the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, their lives changed swiftly, with humiliating restrictions imposed on Jews day after day. And then the deportations began. First, in July 1942 her 72-year-old mother was deported to Theresienstadt (and from there to Treblinka). In July 1943 it was the turn of Alice, Leopold and Stephan to be sent to Theresienstadt.

The physical conditions there were grim but a few months before the Sommers arrived the SS had decided to turn it into a 'show camp' for observers from the International Red Cross - and so the deportees were provided with musical instruments (confiscated from Jews) and allowed to arrange their own entertainment. Alice gave many recitals and the descriptions of these are very moving. Stephan, who was musically even more precocious than his mother had been at that age, was quickly roped in to rehearse and perform in Brundibar, an opera composed for the children in the camp.

As defeat for Germany drew nearer in the autumn of 1944, the SS, possibly fearing an uprising of the able-bodied men in Theriesenstadt, decided to send them to the extermination camps. Alice's husband was among them: she never saw him again. She learned later that he had survived the death march from Auschwitz to Dachau - only to die there of typhus.

But Himmler still wanted to preserve Theriesenstadt as a 'model' camp and to produce it in his defence at the end of the war. Alice had to work an eight-hour day in barracks where slates were broken up to make insulating materials, work which was particularly hard on her hands. But in the evening she would often perform in the concerts that continued to be staged.

In May 1945 Theriesenstadt was liberated and in mid-June Alice and Stephan were able to return to Prague and to continue their musical lives there.

But after the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, it again became dangerous to speak freely. In March 1949 Alice decided to move with her son to Israel, where she was to live for the next 37 years. There her career as a performer and teacher of music continued, while in due course Raphael became a cellist of world stature. After his marriage in 1966 he and his wife were based in London, and there Alice joined him in 1986.

The book ends with the saddest thing that can afflict a loving mother: in 2001 Raphael Sommer died of a heart attack while on a concert tour in Israel. Alice was then 98 and coped with this grief as she had coped with so many other crises in her life, drawing some comfort from music - she still plays the piano three hours a day in her north London home. She has never given way to bitterness; she has always remained life-affirming; her philosophy eschews hatred, whether for Germans or Arabs. Her 100th birthday drew tributes from people from many lands. This moving book is one of them.
Ralph Blumenau

previous article:Arts Notes (review)
next article:Central Office for Holocaust Claims