A Cen­tu­ry of Wis­dom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Som­mer, the World’s Old­est Liv­ing Holo­caust Survivor

Car­o­line Stoessinger
  • Review
By – April 18, 2012
A Cen­tu­ry of Wis­dom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Som­mer, the World’s Old­est Liv­ing Holo­caust Sur­vivor by Car­o­line Stoessinger tells the inspi­ra­tional sto­ry of 108-year-old gift­ed pianist Alice Herz-Som­mer. It is a tale of the pow­er of music and its effects on lis­ten­ers and per­form­ers, when cou­pled with a gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it and an opti­mistic out­look.

In July, 1943, Alice, her hus­band and her six year old son, Rafi, were tak­en from Czecho­slo­va­kia and sent to There­sien­stadt, the so-called mod­el” con­cen­tra­tion camp where, accord­ing to Nazi pro­pa­gan­da, dis­tin­guished Jew­ish musi­cians, writ­ers, sci­en­tists, artists, and the elder­ly were to be pro­tect­ed from the war.” The real world revealed oth­er­wise. Of the 156,000 Jews con­fined to There­sien­stadt, only 17,500 would sur­vive. Of the 15,000 Jew­ish chil­dren sent to the camp, approx­i­mate­ly 100 sur­vived, among them her son Rafi. It was at that camp that Alice Herz-Som­mer served as a pianist and played at more than one hun­dred pro­grams for her fel­low inmates and secret­ly gave piano lessons to chil­dren in the camp.

After the war, Alice moved to Israel with her young son to join rel­a­tives. Her son devel­oped into an accom­plished cel­list. When he moved to Eng­land to fur­ther his musi­cal career, Alice joined him. Through­out, her musi­cal tal­ents kept her per­form­ing and teach­ing. Weaved into the sto­ry are vignettes describ­ing Alice’s per­son­al expe­ri­ences with great musicians,writers, and Israeli polit­i­cal lead­ers, includ­ing Gus­tav Mahler, Daniel Baren­baum, Franz Kaf­ka, Max Brod, and Gol­da Meier.

The author, Car­o­line Stoessinger, inter­viewed Alice for count­less hours from 2004 to 2011 and this mem­oir is filled with the wis­dom Alice accu­mu­lat­ed over more than a cen­tu­ry of liv­ing her life, she says, the right way. Stoessinger is her­self an accom­plished pianist who has per­formed at Carnegie Hall and Lin­coln Cen­ter and is a long time mem­ber of the Tokyo String Quar­tet. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, end­notes, photographs.


Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions