WARNING: THREE READERS HAVE COMPLAINED THAT THIS REVIEW GIVES THE STORY AWAY, AND THEY HAVE SAID THEY WOULD NOT NOW BUY THE BOOK. I AM SORRY THEY ARE DENYING THEMSELVES A GREAT EXPERIENCE, WHICH WOULD GO FAR BEYOND WHAT THEY LEARNED FROM MY REVIEW, AS THE 57 WHO SO FAR HAVE FOUND IT HELPFUL WILL ATTEST.
Music could always transport Alice Sommer into an autonomous paradisical world. This helped her when the real world turned hellish under the Nazis; and the central part of the book is about those years.
She was born in 1903 into a Jewish, acculturated and German-speaking family in Prague. She started playing the piano at a very young age, and at 21, made her debut as soloist with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer and their son Stephan (later to be called Raphael) was born in 1937.
With the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 their lives changed swiftly, with humiliating restrictions being imposed on Jews day after day. And then the deportations began. First, in July 1942 her 72-year old mother was deported from her Old Age Home to Theresienstadt (and from there to the Treblinka death camp). Then a year later, in July 1943, it was the turn of Alice, Leopold and Stephan, then aged six, to be sent to Theresienstadt.
The physical conditions there were grim, but a few months before the Sommers arrived, the SS had decided to turn it into a `show camp' for observers from the International Red Cross - and so the deportees were provided with musical instruments (which had been confiscated from Jews) and were allowed to arrange their own entertainment. Alice gave many recitals, and the descriptions of these are very moving. Stephan, who was musically even more precocious than his mother had been at that age, was quickly roped in to rehearse and perform in Brundibar, the opera specially composed for the children in the camp.
As defeat for Germany drew nearer in the autumn of 1944, the SS, possibly fearing an uprising of the able-bodied men in Theresienstadt, decided to send them to the extermination camps. Alice's husband was among these: she never saw him again. She learnt later that he had survived the death-march from Auschwitz to Dachau - only to die there of typhus.
But Himmler still wanted to preserve Theresienstadt as a `model' camp and to produce it in his defence at the end of the war. Alice had to work an eight hour day in barracks where slates were broken up to make insulating materials, work which was particularly hard on her hands; but in the evening she would often perform in the concerts that continued to be staged.
In May 1945 Theresienstadt was liberated and in mid-June Alice and Stephan were able to return to Prague and to continue their music al lives there.
But after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, it again became dangerous to speak freely. In March 1949 Alice decided to move with her son to Israel, where she was to live for the next 37 years. There her musical career as performer and teacher continued, while Raphael in due course became a cellist of world stature. After his marriage in 1966, he and his wife were based in London, and there Alice joined him in 1986.
The book ends with the saddest thing that can afflict a loving mother: in 2001 Raphael Sommer died of a heart attack while on a concert tour in Israel. Alice was then 98, and coped with this grief as she had coped with so many other crises in her life, drawing some comfort from music (she still plays the piano in her Hampstead home for three hours every day). Never did she give way to bitterness; she always remained life-affirming; her philosophy eschewed hatred, whether for Germans or for Arabs. Her 100th birthday drew tributes from people from many lands. This moving book is one of them.