25th Feb '14

Alice Herz-Sommer, holocaust survivor, war-camp pianist and mother of my cello teacher dies at age 110

Alice Herz-Sommer was a truly amazing woman, whom I had the honour of meeting a few times during my studies in London with Raphael Sommer, her son and distinguished cellist and professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

My First encounter with her was when she moved to London after retiring from the Jerusalem Academy when she was over 80! She sat in on one of my lessons and I remember an incredible enthusiasm and energy filling the room! It was as if to say, don’t be afraid, express what the music has to offer. I am here to listen to you! Years later, after my studies in Paris, I returned to London for some extra coaching with Raphi and she was again there, listening…very attentively. She remembered me from my previous lessons and remarked on how my playing had evolved, matured. She was nearly 90!

To say that she lived life to it’s fullest is an understatement. Born in 1903, into a culturally educated family, she met, as a child, friends of the family Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka. She trained as a pianist at the Prague Music Conservatory but the 2nd world war broke out and she and her young son Raphael were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. During her 2 years there, she gave over 100 performances before emigrating to Israel. Commenting on music in her life she said: “Music saved my life and music saves me still… I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”

I had the extraordinary chance to meet her again 3 years ago in her small flat in Belsize Park, north London and she was as optimistic about her life and the ‘gift of life’ as she had always been. There was an upright piano in her room which she practiced on everyday and a large portrait of her beloved son Raphael, playing, who died tragically in 2001 aged 64 after a concert in Israel. A music trust has been set up in memory of Raphael, by his mother Alice and his spouse Genevieve.

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