Alice Herz-Sommer: An Inspiration Across Generations

28 Feb
Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest pianist and world's oldest Holocaust survivor, died at 110.

Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest pianist and world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died at 110.

On Sunday night, the Academy Awards ceremony will take place. Many of us will watch the coverage of this glitzy annual spectacle. I’m sure if we polled the congregation, we would hear about a number of films that we hope will win an Oscar. Let me tell you what I’m rooting for. In the category of documentary shorts, one of the nominees is a 38-minute film titled: “The Lady in Number 6: How Music Saved My Life.” It is about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, a renowned concert pianist and survivor of of the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She was known as the oldest living survivor of the Shoah, that is until she died last Sunday at the age of 110. Friday’s New York Times carried her obituary.

Herz-Sommer devoted her life to channeling what she regarded to be divinely inspired classical music through her hands playing a piano. She played up until her death. Well past her 100th birthday, one finger in each hand became immobilized, and she reworked her technique to play with eight fingers.

In reading about this feat late in her life, I was reminded of a text in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, and accompanying commentary.

As the Book of Exodus draws to a close, we read about the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The text tells us:

Just as The Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. (Exodus 39: 42)

The text continues:

And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks–as the Lord had commanded, so they had done–Moses blessed them (43).

Absent from this verse is the text of the blessing that Moses offered to the Israelites as their new house of worship was opened for business. Rashi cites the Midrashic work the Sifra that posits that Moses offered the following blessing:

“May it be God’s will that the divine Presence rest upon the work of your hands.”

The rabbis do not pull this blessing out of thin air. In fact, there are 11 Psalms in the Book of Psalms that begin, Tefillah L’Moshe, a prayer of Moses. In Psalm 90, we read:

May Adonai our God show us compassion; may God establish the work of our hands. May God firmly establish the work of our hands (90:17).

Alice Herz-Sommer was a modern day embodiment of the divine presence resting upon the work of her hands. She was born in Prague on Nov. 26, 1903, one of five children of a cultured, German-speaking, secular Jewish family. The family traveled in artistic circles and were friendly with Franz Kafka and Gustave Mahler, both of whom Alice remembered. In fact, she remembered Kafka attending her family’s seder. Alice began piano lessons at five and at 16 began conservatory studies. Before her 20th birthday, she was giving well-received concerts throughout Europe. She married a businessman, Leopold Sommer, and they had a son Stephan in 1937. In 1939, many family members fled Czechoslovakia for Palestine, but she remained in Prague to look after her mother. In 1942, her mother was deported to Theresienstadt and was soon after killed in a death camp. She described this as the lowest point of her life, and she turned to music for solace. She resolved to learn and master Chopin’s Études.

In 1943, Alice, her husband and son were deported to Theresienstadt. Despite the deplorable conditions there, the Nazis used this camp for propaganda. Many Jewish artists, musicians and intellectuals were interned there. The Nazis allowed in the Red Cross three times a year where they would find orchestras playing concerts and leave thinking the Nazis were treating the Jews well. Alice was forced to play on a broken, out-of-tune piano. Through it all, the music sustained her. She performed over 100 concerts in captivity, including all of Chopin’s Études from memory. She said that the music kept her, and the other captives who listened to it, alive. Tragically, her husband was deported to Auschwitz and later died in Dachau.

Alice and her son survived in Theresienstadt until the end of the War. She returned to Prague, but moved to Israel in 1949, where she was a renowned teacher at what is now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Stephan grew up to become an accomplished cellist, and in the mid-1980s, Alice followed him to London to be near him. Tragically, he died of an aneurism in 2001 at the age of 64. Once again, she coped with her loss through her music. In her London apartment building, where she occupied Flat No. 6, her neighbors heard her practicing piano constantly. Thus emerged the title of the film that is up for an Academy Award: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.”

Whatever happens at the Oscars on Sunday, Alice Herz-Sommer will remain an inspiration. In the film, she says that it was music that gave her hope in her darkest days. For her, she says, “Music is God.” Indeed, Alice Herz-Sommer mastered one particular expression of Divine energy and channeled it through her hands on a piano. In the time of the Torah, Moses blessed the people by praying that the Divine Presence would rest upon the work of the hands of the people. Let us be inspired by the words of Moses and the music of Alice Herz-Sommer that each of us can bring the Divine Presence into our world through the work of our hands. Our hands may feel broken at times, and the world is often unforgiving, but we can perform the work of our hands literally or figuritively.

May it be God’s will that the Divine Presence rest upon the work of our hands.

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