"When a child is held close to the mother everything good can happen; he feels secure." These words of advice from Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest Holocaust survivor and quintessential mother, defined her quest under unimaginable circumstances. In Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Alice's six-year-old son slept in her bunk cuddled in his mother's arms.
Disregarding her own fears, Alice dedicated herself to protecting her son's mental stability above all. She knew if Rafi never felt she was frightened or depressed, he would feel safe. With herculean discipline Alice cheerfully created a semblance of normalcy for her little son, laughing, making up stories, songs and games to distract him from the grim reality of their prison. She assured him they would return home to Prague as soon as the war ended. Deep within her being, Alice never permitted herself to doubt the happy ending she predicted. When Rafi cried from hunger and she had nothing to give him, Alice talked of the fine food he would soon eat in Prague promising all he wanted of his favorite chocolates and ice cream. When Rafi asked for piano lessons Alice managed to instruct him daily on an imaginary keyboard. As the Nazis demanded their Jewish prisoners play concerts in the camp, a few upright pianos in poor condition were available for brief rehearsal sessions. Sometimes Alice was able to sneak Rafi into a practice chamber for a few magical moments with music. And although he was only six Rafi was invited to sing the role of the sparrow in a Czech children's opera, Brundibar, based on a morality tale of good triumphing over evil. As the Nazis did not translate the Czech lyrics sung by the children they never realized Brundibar was a euphemism for Hitler. Rafi felt empowered to be part of this production and particularly the final scene where the children defeated Brundibar. At night Rafi would perform many of the roles for his proud mother before they fell asleep in the barracks.
After liberation when Alice immigrated to Israel with Rafi, she refused to talk about their time in a concentration camp. Alice did not want her son to be scared or traumatized or to live with hatred or bitterness. Not even her piano students at the Music Academy of Jerusalem knew she was a survivor. Years later when he was grown, both Alice and Rafi agreed that she had succeeded as he remembered nothing of the their years in Theresienstadt.
Once Rafi asked a survivor, Ela Weissberger, who had sung with him in Brundibar, how he had behaved during the rehearsals as he remembered nothing. "You were terrible" Ela told him. "We older girls were always looking for you as you loved to hide just when you should be on stage. But you sang beautifully."
Today Alice at 109 speaks to mothers everywhere of the value of protecting a child's innocence so they are not "carefully taught" to hate or fear.
Adapted from her book, A Century of Wisdom: Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, by Caroline Stoessinger, Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 2012
See the video trailer for the book.