Illustration by Gracia Lam
Caroline Stoessinger ’58 simply couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that there had been concerts in Nazi concentration camps. “It made no sense,” said Stoessinger, who is a concert pianist. Her quest to understand the incomprehensible was the subject of an event on campus in September exploring the life of 108-year-old Londoner Alice Herz-Sommer, the Holocaust survivor profiled in Stoessinger’s 2012 book, A Century of Wisdom (Spiegel & Grau, 2012). Sponsored by Project Continuum, an alumnae group of women over 50, the program offered a mix of literature as well as music that had been performed at Theresienstadt, an SS concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. Stoessinger performed, as did the Shanghai String Quartet and the Metropolitan Opera bass Terry Cook.
Alice Herz-Sommer’s life inspired Stoessinger to write her first book because, “What’s important is not her age, not that she’s a survivor, not that she’s a pianist, but that she’s able to live with joy in her heart [despite] what happened,” said Stoessinger.
As a young Jewish girl born into an affluent family in Prague, Alice Herz-Sommer met Franz Kafka; her mother was a childhood friend of Gustav Mahler. When the Nazis came, Herz-Sommer was sent to Theresienstadt with her young son. Her husband died at Auschwitz. After the war, she left Czechoslovakia for Israel, learned Hebrew at 45, and became a friend of both Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem. She moved to London to be near her son, an only child, who died a few years ago.
Herz-Sommer, who turns 109 in November, lives alone. Until a few months ago, she practiced piano daily. “I often feel I’m the youngest person in the room because I’m curious about other people,” she said in a video shown during the program. “I’m very thankful for every minute we’re living.... I look at the good side always. I believe I am the happiest person in the world.”
Stoessinger believes music saved people’s lives in the camps. “By allowing people to practice, to play concerts, to compose, they held on to something. People could be transported back to their homes, back to the beauty they had known. Every concert in Theresienstadt became an ethical and moral victory for the Jewish prisoners.”
A native of the Ozarks who majored in music at Barnard, Stoessinger is a teacher and artist-in-residence at John Jay College. She also runs the Mozart Academy to teach classical music to children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity. “The Mozart Academy is directly related to Alice,” Stoessinger explained. “I deeply believe that our culture, like that of the German Jews, needs to be kept alive. It’s a humanizing influence. I believe that music is basic to education. The truth is that people who pursue beauty don’t carry hate or vengeance in their hearts.”