I was fascinated because Alice was Czech (my favourite nationality) and lived in London (my favourite city) and because three generations of her family made their life surrounded by music and literature (along with art, my favourite cultural worlds).
Alice Herz was born in Prague in 1903, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a merchant father and a mother who moved in a literary world. As a child she learned piano and eventually studied at the prestigious Prague German Conservatory of Music. Mother introduced young Alice to Gustav Mahler (d1911) briefly and to Franz Kafka very often - apparently she enjoyed playing Beethoven and Chopin for Kafka’s pleasure. And she performed in concerts throughout her young career with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, particularly enjoying Schumann’s music.
Alice married Leopold Sommer in 1931, another music buff, and life was good.
Then catastrophe occurred. In 1938 the Germans annexed just the Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia but in March 1939, the Germans took over the rest of Czechoslovakia. After the invasion, Jewish families knew they had to escape while they could. But for some reason to do with family members, Alice Herz-Sommer remained in Prague. (My Czech inlaws escaped to Budapest, but that proved to be no safe haven either).
By July 1943, the end was in sight. Alice, Leopold, their young son and her elderly mother were deported to Theresienstadt camp in Terezin Czechoslovakia. This was a transit camp en route to the extermination camps in other countries. Alice and the son were not further deported and so they survived; her husband and mother were sent on to Auschwitz and did not survive.
Mueller, Melissa & Reinhard Piechocki: A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (McMillan 2008).
Nick Reed interviewed Alice who told with great passion of playing along with other musicians in 100 concerts inside Theresienstadt. She likened that experience, both for the performers and their imprisoned audience, as being close to the divine. Alice was clear that music preserved her sanity and her life – while bringing hope into the lives of countless others. What the interview did not reveal was why the Theresienstadt guards allowed music to be played, who provided the instruments, where the sheet music came from and why other prisoners were allowed to participate in the concerts.
Ed Vulliamy explained this bizarre environment. All Nazi camps were diabolical, but Terezín was redemptive, at first. It was the place in which Jews of Czechoslovakia were concentrated, especially the intelligentsia and prominent artistic figures. And, in time, members of the Jewish cultural elites from across Europe were brought to Terezin, prior to transportation to the gas chambers.
And as a result – despite the cruelty, rampant fatal disease, malnutrition, paltry rations, cramped conditions and death – Terezín was hallmarked by a thriving cultural life: painting and drawing, theatre and cabarets, lectures and schooling, and, above all, great music. Among the inmates was a star pupil of Leoš Janáček; plus there were four composers of note, including one of the most promising composers from the circle of Arnold Schoenberg, Viktor Ullmann. Each prisoner had been allowed to bring luggage and many of them had smuggled in musical instruments, even though it had been forbidden for Jews to own them. No wonder the beauty of music and art bloomed in that real-life hell.
So clever was the plan to calm the fears of Prague's Jews that the Nazis eventually presented Terezín as "the Fuhrer's gift to the Jews”. This model camp, where they really did permit the performance of serious and cabaret-style music, theatrical performances and soccer teams, would be a place where the Red Cross representatives were allowed to visit.
Viktor Ullmann wrote some of the most important music; amazingly some of his sheet music survived. Additionally Edna Mor discovered that among the pieces Alice played in the camp were Chopin's Etudes. The so called "Revolutionary Study" must have acquired a very special meaning in that horrible place. The film's conclusion was clear. It has often been said that fear and hatred eat the soul, but conversely it can also be argued that love,.. of life, of family, of music.. can nourish the soul and liberate the spirit.
Alice and her son returned to Prague after being liberated by the Soviet Army in mid 1945, but no-one from her pre-war world was there. Her flat had been confiscated by the Nazis and given to a Christian family. In 1949 Alice migrated to Israel, working as a music teacher in Jerusalem.
She emigrated to the UK in 1986 where her son became a professional musician in his own right. Herz-Sommer died peacefully in London in February 2014, aged 110.