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Alice Hertz-Sommer: The Secret of Faith

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To teach the lesson of faith, the Baal Shem Tov once told a parable about a peddler who arrived in a village late in the evening to peddle his wares. It was dark, all the windows were shuttered, and he did not know which way to go. All at once light streamed from a window. He approached and was stunned to see people moving and jumping about in a weird fashion; he could not make out the blurs he was seeing. Had the window been open, however, he would have heard the music and understood they were dancing. Music, like faith, cannot be explained by logic. If you are fortunate to hear the music, to have the gift of faith, then you understand the ways of Hashem.

Alice Hertz Sommer, world famous pianist and Holocaust survivor, died a few days ago at the age of 110.

Alice and her twin sister Mariana were born in Prague in November 1903. The sisters had two older brothers and one sister. Their father, Friedrich Hertz, was the owner of a factory that produced precision scales. Their mother was a well-educated woman who read a lot and played the piano.

Alice started playing the piano when she was seven; her first teacher was her older sister Irma.  After a year and a half she was able to accompany her older brother Paul, a talented violinist. At 18 Alice was already performing in recitals and as soloist in concerts of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

Alice married Leopold Sommer who worked in an import-export business and was also a talented violinist. Their son was born in June of 1937.

When Hitler entered Prague in March 1939, many Czech Jews managed to escape to Palestine, including Alice’s twin Mariane and her families. In July 1942, her mother, Sofie Hertz was deported to Theresienstadt and then to Treblinka. Alice, her husband and son Stephan were deported to Terezin in July 1943.

Alice was a well-known pianist and expected to give a concert every week. While it wasn’t easy, she managed to keep her faith and optimism in spite of the hard conditions. Six year old Stephen had a part in the children’s opera “Brundibar” and then became the “page-turner” for other musicians in the ghetto. Leopold was able to join them every evening until October of 1944 when his name appeared on the transport list.

In mid-June of 1945 Alice and Stephan returned to Prague where they learned that Leopold would not be returning home. Alice decided they would make the trip to the newly-established Jewish State where she was reunited with her brother and sisters.

Alice began teaching in the Jerusalem Conservatory, giving recitals and raising a new generation of Israeli pianists. Stephan became Raphael and a well-known cellist who won many international prizes. Tragically, Raphael died in 2001 while on a successful concert tour in Israel. Once again, Alice kept her faith and the Divine gift of music.

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