(A Documentary Review)
(Yes, She Has Danced Beneath The Gallows):
We are sometimes lucky enough to meet giants, I offer to you the mighty Alice. She may not look to be as big as most giants, but that is only an illusion. With a strength of spirit, love, and music, Alice is a giant who once danced beneath the gallows.
“I never hate. Hatred brings only hatred.”
Actually, Alice Herz-Sommer played the piano and gave many condemned people a faint glimpse of beauty and humanity, just before they were consumed by the fires of National Socialism.
Czechoslovakia was occupied by Hitler’s National Socialists in March of 1939. Jews were stripped of all rights and property. They were forbidden to work, ride public transportation, or use the public parks. Jews could not use telephones, own jewelry, or keep money.
The dehumanization of Jews began.
“Although we were poor, had nothing to eat and the Nazis and their Czech collaborators took away all our belongings, for me the greatest punishment was having to wear the yellow star. When I went on the street my best non-Jewish friends didn’t dare to look at me.”
Alice was born in Prague, in 1903. She began playing the piano at five, studying under a prominent student of Liszt, Conrad Ansorge; at 16, she became the youngest member of the master class of Prague’s German musical academy.
Today, Alice lives in a single room apartment on the north side of London. She considers herself to be one of the luckiest people in the world. It’s true, she is the oldest Holocaust survivor and she plays classical piano for three hours a day at 109 years of age, but it is her spirit and attitude toward life that distinguishes her from the rest of humanity and makes her the luckiest person alive, and the rest of the world is lucky to have The Lady in Number Six to teach us the precepts of humanity and humility.
Expression from the heart is enough to separate artists, authors, and musicians from their peers, but when an artisan is blessed with a wholesome beauty within the heart, there is a richness and clarity produced that can only be called sublime.
When I watched a special presentation of the documentary about Alice Herz-Sommer and listened to her playing classical music from memory, I was moved, I felt the odd tear run down my cheek, but there was more; my heart ached and my heart cried for this lady and her message of love.
Like many others, I know nothing of music, especially classical piano; yet, I know when the music moves me to the basic essence of my being and this is what Alice and her music did for me.
She once played beneath the gallows, offering this same beauty of spirit, for a few brief seconds, to tens of thousands of innocent people just before they were executed. She played to survive, but she shared her love through her music, and it’s sad but true, when we part with this mortal coil, we take only what is in our heart. Alice gave those poor lost souls a gift to take with them, it was all that she could do.
Alice is still giving, in these troubling times, she offers us not only beautiful music, but immeasurable amounts of love and courage as well.
“MUSIC WAS MY FOOD”
Alice grew up in the Jewish intellectual circles of Prague, Franz Kafka was a family friend. She learned Schubert, Smetana, and Beethoven in the long forgotten style of Arthur Schnabel, one of her instructors.
She was confined in the Prague ghetto with her husband and son for two years. They were then deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp (Terezin in Czech), north of Prague.
At Theresienstadt, she was assigned to the camp orchestra and managed to play Chopin’s 24 Etudes from memory.
“We were hardly given any food in Theresienstadt. We lost weight. We scavenged for potato peelings as people starved to death around us. People ask, ‘How could you make music?’ We were so weak. But music was special, like a spell. Music was my food. There were excellent musicians there in the camp orchestra, really excellent. Violinists, cellists, singers, conductors and composers.”
Alice’s husband, an accomplished violinist, was transferred to Auschwitz in 1944 and then to Dachau. He and most of Alice’s family were killed at Dachau.
ONE OF ONLY 130 CHILDREN TO SURVIVE
Raphael, the six-year son of Alice, sang in the performances of Hans Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar. The opera was staged as propaganda by the National Socialists to portray how life was normal for Jews in Theresienstast for the benefit of Red Cross dignitaries. There were 15,000 children interred at Theresienstadt; Raphael was one of the 130 who survived. He was eight, when he was liberated by the Red Army on May 9, 1945, the last day of the war in Europe.
“When I came back home it was very, very painful because nobody else came back. The whole family of my husband, several members of my family, all my friends, all the friends of my family, nobody came back. Then I realized what Hitler had done.”
Alice moved to Israel after the war. One of her sisters had escaped the National Socialist killing machine by going to Israel before the war.
“I must say, when I moved to Israel there was not a day without political tension, but to experience democracy! After Hitler and Stalin, you feel what it means. You can read, speak, trust everyone. It was a beautiful life in Israel, inspiring. Musicians, scientists and writers – they all came and lectured. It was a cultural centre. I was very happy.”
Alice left Israel in 1986, at the urging of her son, and joined him in Britain. She now resides in London.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch is also featured in the video. Anita was born in 1925, at Breslau (formerly part of Germany, now part of Poland and renamed Wroclaw). She is a world renowned cellist and one of the few surviving members of the 40-piece Women’ Orchestra of Auschwitz.
Anita was 16 when she was deported to Auschwitz, her musical talent with the cello was the vehicle that kept her alive. The orchestra played while the condemned were marched to the gas chambers and while the slaves were marched to and from their labor sites each day. They were also required to give concerts for the SS officers.
In October of 1944, Auschwitz was evacuated because of the advancing Red Army. Anita and 3,000 others were taken by train to Bergen-Belsen to endure six months of starvation.
Anita resumed her musical career after the war with the English Chamber Orchestra. Her son is the distinguished cellist, Raphael Wallfisch.
Anita plays scrabble on the weekends with Alice, and since they each speak many languages fluently, we may assume those games are lively and spirited.
“We don’t score, we play for the beauty of the words, the beauty of life.”
It is the beauty of life that surrounds Alice as she approaches her 110th birthday, it is not something you must seek, she gives it away freely to everyone. The video is available, I suggest you watch this inspiring woman who danced beneath the gallows; it will be good for your soul.
There will soon be an effort to send Alice one million birthday greetings for her 110th birthday. I will be responsible for one, if we can get a few more readers to send a few more birthday greetings, that would be a way to say, Thank You, Alice, Thank You for being Alice. (The Alice Challenge)
An older short video:http://youtu.be/Sp1TiDCEK4k
Epilogue: I have never written anything that brought me to tears while conducting the mundane task of proofreading, again and again, but these words are only a pitiful attempt to describe an outstanding individual. If you have a measure of humanity in your soul, do yourself a favor and watch this documentary; you will never forget Alice, The Lady in Number 6. The documentary is up for an Academy Award; despite an ambivalence to the Academy and its awards, I am hoping this one does well.