NEWBERRY — Alice Herz-Sommer has played more than 100 concerts in a Nazi concentration camp.
The Holocaust survivor is 108 years old and lives in London and still practices in her 12-by-13 studio apartment three hours a day, from memory.
She is now the subject of a book as written by friend Caroline Stoessinger who frequented Herz-Sommer for about a decade in London.
The book depicts what Herz-Sommer experienced but Stoessinger says, “the book mostly talks about forgiveness.”
“It’s not because of the Holocaust, her age or music… it’s because of her character and how she deals with life,” said Stoessinger.
Stoessinger explains how she first met Herz-Sommer, “When I met Alice for the first time, I thought I wanted to talk to her about music, but instead I asked her how is she able to live (referencing her character). She was silent and then told me about a Rabbi who taught her about forgiveness. Alice said that (the) Rabbi believed in a forgiveness and that it’s about the forgiver. You don’t hold it inside so that it’s a burden.”
“Learning to live with forgiveness is an over riding theme,” said Stoessinger who adds that Herz-Sommer told her, “Forgiveness is for the forgiver… move on.”
Stoessinger said that Herz-Sommer told her that “hatred only brings more hatred.”
Herz-Sommer has not only survived the Holocaust but other wars and has lost her husband and parents and her only son but she is not bitter, according to Stoessinger.
“She has never allowed herself to descend into depression,” said Stoessinger.
When Stoessinger visited Newberry on Monday to talk about Herz-Sommer and the book, she showed a clip of the survivor.
Stoessinger has about 30 hours of documentary film about Herz-Sommer.
In one glimpse of the film, Herz-Sommer says with a smile on her face, “I’m the happiest person in the world.”
“She has a phenomenal sense of humor,” says Stoessinger, who explains one situation in particular.
Herz-Sommer has many visitors, particularly media, who have filmed segments about her. Stoessinger recalls a time when some younger camera guys were at her place.
“She went into another room and came out with red (sneaker) shoes and red lipstick,” said Stoessinger, describing Herz-Sommer’s ability to still flirt.
In addition to humor, Stoessinger also says that patience and imagination are in Herz-Sommer’s character.
“Alice would say, it’s how you react to it. They can steal everything you have, but they can’t steal what’s up here,” said Stoessinger as she points to her mind.
In fact, Herz-Sommer has helped Stoessinger throughout a much needed time in her life when her daughter was diagnosed with an illness. She says that Herz-Sommer taught her to go about life as normal and not get beaten down so as to not upset her daughter.
“She said, times have always been terrible (and) it’s up to you to deal and manage it. Complaining doesn’t do anything,” Stoessinger says, carrying on Herz-Sommer’s words of wisdom.
One common thread that does unite the two ladies from different backgrounds is their passion for music.
Stoessinger is a pianist who has performed at the Newberry Opera House multiple times and has studied music of the Holocaust much of her life.
She says that the Nazis used music almost as torture while the Jewish people viewed music as a survival skill.
Herz-Sommer has also “studied with people who studied with the greats. One man was a teacher of Chopin, another of Beethoven. She is a generation removed from the greats,” says Stoessinger with increased excitement in her eyes for these famous musical composers.
Just as music was an escape for Herz-Sommer, it was also an escape route for Stoessinger who grew up in the Ozark mountains.
“If it weren’t for music, I wouldn’t be here and have experienced what I experienced and met people I met,” she said.
“I hope people will read it (the book) and understand it. I hope it will read to a deeper meaning of classical music to life,” said Stoessinger.
While Herz-Sommer played music in her concentration camp, Stoessinger notes how the Nazis used the music as propaganda for people like the Red Cross to show them that the camps must not be that bad, Stoessinger says.
Meanwhile, the Jews played music because “they made the best of whatever it was. They used whatever they had,” she explains.
“Performing music is hard, but under those conditions is… something,” Stoessinger says in describing how the survivor’s push to keep playing.
Despite those circumstances that Herz-Sommer endured, she chooses forgiveness.
“I do know that people who live their life in pursuit of beauty live a life full of love and justice. I believe people that live their lives in pursuit of beauty do not carry hatred in their heart. They are generous, imaginative people who carry beauty in their heart,” said Stoessinger.