July 10, 2024
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July 10, 2024
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Gigi, the Uber-Extraordinary, Diminutive Giant: A Very Personal Recollection

In late June 2005, I had my first face-to-face meeting with renowned director Christopher Nupen, for whom I had arranged lectures and screenings of his film “We Want the Light” across the United States. At that point, Alice Herz-Sommer (aka Gigi), whose Holocaust survival story figured prominently in the film, came into my life. I knew she had given more than 100 concerts in Theresienstadt and was interned with her son Stephan, age 6, but I was unprepared for our encounter.

Christopher and I arrived at 6 Belsize Grove, where she warmly welcomed us. She was very petite, self-possessed, articulate and charming—the oldest Holocaust survivor in London, and presumably, the world. The deference shown to her by Christopher reflected the deep respect shown by one famous artist to another. I was a participant/observer in her sparsely furnished Belsize Park bedsit (studio) apartment, complete with an upright Steinway piano. Christopher had been correct—those who kept Gigi company, whether to relieve her “solitude,” or “check” in on her, felt better when they left her presence than when they entered it.

Subsequently, I visited Gigi when in London—multiple times—and phoned her often to wish her well and hear her voice. Sometimes I brought others to be inspired—a rebbetzin, and my daughter, whom she advised that marital relationships are difficult. On Shabbat, I crossed the Heath Extension en route to South Hampstead Synagogue to visit her. One weekday, I watched her cook in her tiny kitchen. There were often Czechs, Israelis and others there, bearing delicacies, and with whom I had to share my coveted Gigi time. Even so, home visits were more predictable than my phone calls, one of which was particularly unusual.

I often listened to “BBC Newshour,” and on November 26, 2010, announcer Vincent Dowd congratulated Gigi on her 107th birthday. I was stunned. I immediately phoned to wish her happy birthday. It was mid-afternoon in London. Gigi routinely paced the hallway with her walker, or visited neighbors on her floor, so I rejoiced when someone responded.

It wasn’t Gigi, but an unknown woman who asked whether I was the cat from Brundibar. “No,” I told her, perplexed. “You didn’t play the cat in ‘Brundibar’ in Theresienstadt?” (‘Brundibar’ was a children’s opera, in which Gigi’s son had performed.) “No,” I repeated. “I’m too young to have been in Theresienstadt.” “Oh,” she said. “Yes, you sound too young to have been in Theresienstadt.”

“Wendy” had a daily Scrabble date, but Gigi was nowhere in sight—so Wendy searched for her. Thankfully, there were not too many places for a 107-year-old woman with a walker to hunker down in a studio apartment or on a single floor, and Gigi was celebrating her birthday with a neighbor.

I phoned her again that night before her 7 p.m. bedtime and asked how she was doing. Though cheerful overall, she said, “I am getting old.” I repeatedly praised her, and her whole body reverberated with laughter. Things turned serious when I asked about her piano practice. She said she was “learning” Bach. A woman who has played piano for 102 years and performed over 100 concerts needs to “learn” Bach? I didn’t probe but asked how many hours she practiced, knowing two fingers functioned poorly. Some days one, she said, others two or four. She ended the call inquiring about my family, wishing them “all the best, all the time.”

As the years progressed, Gigi continued to be cheerful. “Life is be-e-auu-tiful,” she would always say. “Nature is be-e-auu-tiful. I am an optimist. Everything is half good, half bad. I only see the positive,” she said. “I am lucky. Never a word of complaining. What … to complain? Nobody will love you. You will be alone in the world.”

What catalyzed Gigi’s optimism and serenity? Perhaps it was the cultural tapestry and positivity in her Prague upbringing. Her Orthodox grandmother lived with the family and came from another town where, Gigi mentioned, she knew Gustav Mahler’s Orthodox family well. (His Catholic conversion was career-motivated.) At five, she had piano lessons with her sister Irma. Her siblings and music-loving mother arranged informal chamber music gatherings at home, enhanced by her brothers-in-laws’ (Felix Weltsch and Emil Adler) intellectual, Zionist fervor.

Franz Kafka, a family friend, visited multiple times each week to talk with Gigi’s mother. He was very confused, Gigi maintained. His parents’ religious differences exacerbated his angst and indecision, especially regarding women. This contrasted with the Herz household; her father always smiled and was in good spirits.

Within this Jewish cultural, religious and intellectual ambience, Gigi’s foundation for life emerged. Music is ultimately what saved her. “Music is a spell,” she said quietly. “I am with God when I play.” She favored Schumann and later, Beethoven. In “We Want the Light,” she called Bach “Bible” and described music’s power to heal.

The Nazis’ Theresienstadt provided the illusion of a cultural paradise. Gigi was also deceived. When the Nazis told her, “So you will play (music),” she thought Theresienstadt could not be that bad. Lacking proper food or clothes, if the musicians knew they would play, they would be happy. “In the concentration camp, we didn’t eat … we didn’t have hot water to wash ourselves. Music made people forget that they are hungry. … Music is a spell … a miracle.”

Yet little Stephan, who shared her bunk, asked difficult questions. “What are Jews? Why don’t we have anything to eat? Who is Hitler?” Despite the hunger and privations of the years they huddled together on a mattress, Gigi said, ”When a child feels the body of a mother, laughing, it can’t be so terrible.” Meanwhile, her husband, Leo, had been sent to Auschwitz, then to Dachau. He died of typhus weeks before the war ended.

There was so much that was unique about Gigi, beyond her optimism, her longevity, and how her upbringing contributed to her survival in Theresienstadt and success in rebuilding a post-war life. She never characterized her internment in the most extreme, negative terms. The true Nazi horrors, she asserted, were in Auschwitz, which, in “We Want the Light,” she described as “hell.” In Theresienstadt, it was music, and love for Stephan (later Raphael), that kept her going as her world crumbled. They survived, sharing one bunk, but her beloved mother and husband did not—nor did fellow musicians sent from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Despite this, she emerged without bitterness, without harboring hatred for her oppressors.

After liberation, she returned to Prague with Stephan, but felt uncomfortable there. She emigrated to Israel, where her sisters and their spouses had moved. She did not talk about Theresienstadt, although her sister questioned her about it.

In Israel, Gigi resumed teaching and was on the faculty of the Rubin Academy of Music. She underscored how important it was after her arrival in Israel, at age 45, to learn Hebrew without mistakes. She already knew five languages but “…wanted to read the Bible in the language it was written, and the Talmud, everything still now I read.” She didn’t sleep for seven years, she said, during which time she studied Hebrew 10 hours a day.

Stephan, now Raphael, also was at the Rubin Academy, as a student of cello. “He was very gifted, extremely gifted,” she said. He continued his musical education in France, became a world-class cellist, and moved to the United Kingdom. Gigi eventually joined him in London, but he died in 2001. She remained very close to her grandsons, one of whom lived nearby, monitoring Gigi regularly and taking her to appointments.

When I visited her in summer 2013, London was having a heat wave. There was no air conditioning. Gigi’s open windows and the absence of light cooled the room a bit. We chatted, although she was less energetic than usual. She told me, “I cannot see, I cannot hear, I cannot walk, but I am happy.” I was troubled by the apartment’s poor ventilation and walked down the hall, rang another apartment’s bell, and a young Orthodox woman answered. I explained my concern that Gigi might be at risk of heat stroke and asked her to check on her. Gigi was fine, she later confirmed by phone. That was my last visit to 6 Belsize Grove.

Just like there was no fanfare in her persona on a personal level—she never capitalized on the “buzz” created by several documentaries about her, or the BBC birthday shout-out—there was none for her passing. She died quietly in the hospital on February 23, 2014, just a week shy of Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed’s “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” winning the Oscar for best documentary short.

As riveting a film presence as she was, as compelling as her story was in print (including the 2008 book “A Garden of Eden in Hell” by Melissa Muller and Reinhard Piechocki), and as publicized as her death was in the major news media, her memorial service and burial were a private family affair, as Christopher Nupen told me. I was not able to get contact information to extend condolences, but for me, anyway, that level of closure would not have sufficed.

In the rare instance that someone lives to 110, it would be natural to celebrate his or her long and productive life. And although Gigi’s life was a celebration of beauty, positivity and endurance, and touched the heart of all who met her and even those who did not, it was also a profound loss. Somehow, had she stuck it out on this planet just a little longer, and been present during this most crazy and challenging time, I am sure she would have smiled and beamed, “Life is bee-auu-tiful!”

Rachel Kovacs is an adjunct associate professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for offoffonline.com—and a Judaics teacher. She can be reached at [email protected].

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