Alice’s Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer

Melis­sa Müller and Rein­hard Piechoc­ki; Alice Herz-Som­mer, fwd.

By – April 18, 2012

I have nev­er learned to give up hope,” wrote Alice in her intro­duc­tion to this sto­ry of her life. At 108 years of age, she is con­sid­ered to be the old­est Holo­caust sur­vivor. It must have been her opti­mism, com­bined with her love of music, and the spir­it of per­sis­tence, that enabled her to endure life in a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp, There­sien­stadt. There she was allowed to play and record the great piano mas­ter­works, thus help­ing the Nazis, in spite of her­self, to deceive the world about their treat­ment of their prisoners.

Her con­fi­dence that one could work through prob­lems, even seri­ous ones, was applied in many cir­cum­stances. Stand your ground, apply your skills and deter­mi­na­tion, and suc­cess will be achieved, has been her belief. In spite of her grief over the loss of her hus­band and her moth­er, she sim­ply had to sur­vive the pri­va­tions of con­cen­tra­tion camp life, for with­out those loved ones, Alice was the sole pro­tec­tor of her young son, and there­fore knew that she had to sur­vive. Her con­certs for camp pris­on­ers helped keep her alive, and brought hope and beau­ty to their mis­er­able world.

Writ­ten by her close friend, Rein­hardt Piechoc­ki, this live­ly biog­ra­phy pays trib­ute to a lov­ing moth­er, Holo­caust sur­vivor, and pianist who, for close to a cen­tu­ry, has brought the joy of music to many audi­ences. The author has sup­plied excerpts from the music that she played, and accom­pa­ny­ing pro­gram notes.” Although the chap­ters about Theresin­stadt occu­py a large part of the book, much of it is also tak­en up with Alice’s younger days as well as the years after her release from captivity.

Music takes us to par­adise” Alice Herz-Som­mer says in her fore­ward to the book, and the abil­i­ty to make music beau­ti­ful­ly has sure­ly added years to her life just as it has brought hope and plea­sure to her audiences. 

Claire Rudin is a retired direc­tor of the New York City school library sys­tem and for­mer librar­i­an at the Holo­caust Resource Cen­ter and Archives in Queens, NY. She is the author of The School Librar­i­an’s Source­book and Chil­dren’s Books About the Holocaust.

Discussion Questions

  • Alice Herz-Som­mer cred­its music with hav­ing saved her life. In what ways is that true? What was the impor­tance of Chopin’s Etudes for Alice? What was the impact of Alice’s con­certs at Terezin?
  • When this book first came out in 2007, the title was A Gar­den of Eden in Hell,” a ref­er­ence to Alice’s son’s descrip­tion of his child­hood. Is this descrip­tion apt in any oth­er ways? Do you think it is a bet­ter title for the book than Alice’s Piano”? Does the change in title shift your view of the book?
  • Alice’s moth­er favored her twin sis­ter since she was the weak­er of the two. Do you think that affect­ed Alice as an adult? Did it help or hin­der her in her life?
  • As teenagers, Alice and Mar­i­anne are asked to write essays in school, a les­son that turned into a dis­cus­sion of opti­mism and pes­simism (p 45 – 46). Alice believes that opti­mists are best because they spread hap­pi­ness while pes­simists share doom. Mar­i­anne believes that pes­simists see the truth that opti­mists ignore. In light of the sto­ry of Alice’s life, whose inter­pre­ta­tion do you think is cor­rect? How is the dif­fer­ence between the two reflect­ed else­where in the book?
  • What did you find most inspir­ing in Alice’s sto­ry? Did you learn any­thing from read­ing this book?

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