‘Everything is a present’

‘Everything is a present’

Remembering the warmth, wisdom, and optimism of 'The Lady in Number 6'

Pianist Alice Herz-Sommer and her friend Rachel Kovacs of Bergen County. Ms. Herz-Sommer survived the Holocaust; she died in February, just before the film about her life, “The Lady in Room Number 6,” won an Oscar.

On Sunday, February 23, in London, one week before “The Lady in Number 6″ was awarded an Oscar for best short documentary, Gigi – Alice Herz-Sommer – femme extraordinaire, died. It was a few short months past her 110th birthday. She had been thought to be the oldest living Holocaust survivor, and as she had told me, the oldest person in London.

Born in Prague in 1903 to a German-speaking Czech family, Gigi was an accomplished concert pianist before World War II. She was deported to Theresienstadt (Terezin, the so-called model camp the Nazis created to deceive the world about the fate of the Jews) in 1943, together with her husband, Leopold, and their son, Stephan. Leopold succumbed to typhus in Dachau. Gigi and Stephan remained in Theresienstadt, where Stephan sang in Brundibar, the now-famous children’s opera. Gigi gave more than 100 concerts.

After liberation they went to Prague, and then settled in Israel in 1949. Stephan, who had changed his name to Raphael, became an accomplished cellist; Gigi helped establish a new conservatory in Jerusalem. Raphael, who was based in London, died suddenly in 2001. Gigi, who had lived full-time in London since 1986, practiced piano daily, swam, took walks, and cooked her own meals. (Read more about her in “A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer.”

My contribution here is anecdotal, based on my interviews with Gigi, whom I first met in spring 2005; I first visited her together with Christopher Nupen, the renowned British director of music documentaries. I had been working to bring him and “We Want the Light,” his award-winning film, to the United States, and I had organized a series of lecture/screenings in New York, Miami, and L.A. By the time I met Gigi, I had seen the film perhaps 20 times.

With each glimpse of her, I was spellbound. She was only 98 when the film was shot, a still-vibrant pianist, who cut quite a remarkable figure, was always smiling, and never complained. After that, I interviewed her annually, sometimes during multiple visits. When I was alone with her, Gigi spoke about everything from Kafka, whom she knew and saw as highly conflicted, to Mahler, who had grown up in the same town as her Orthodox grandmother. Once, when my younger daughter accompanied me, we chuckled at Gigi’s emphatic declaration that marriage is one of life’s most difficult challenges.

Gigi loved company, so time alone with her was a privilege, and you would never know who would visit her – Israelis, with whom she spoke Hebrew (she told me she had studied 10 hours a day to learn it), or perhaps Czechs, who reminisced with her and brought her wafer-thin delicacies. She was uniquely modest and aware, not conventionally religious, but grateful for all of creation and for the spirituality of music.

On a Friday morning in November 2010, I turned on BBC Newshour, as was my usual custom, and heard the preview of a broadcast about her 107th birthday. I scrambled for the phone. “Hullo,” answered the female voice at the other end. The voice sounded younger and a bit higher pitched than I remembered.

“Gigi?” I asked. “No,” she answered. “It’s Rachel,” I said. “I’m calling from America to speak with Gigi.” “Oh,” said the woman. And then the query: “You aren’t the cat from Brundibar, are you?” “No,” I answered, startled. “You didn’t play the cat in Brundibar, in Theresienstadt?” “No,” I answered. “I’m too young to have been in Theresienstadt.” “Oh,” said the woman. “Yes, you do sound too young to have been in Theresienstadt.”

“I just came in, and Gigi is nowhere in sight,” she continued. “I’ll have a look round. Perhaps she’s in the loo.” (That’s British for toilet). “Please don’t disturb her if she is,” I said.

The woman went off in search of Gigi, and I thought, fleetingly, that it’s hard to get lost in a bedsit – that’s British for studio apartment – even if you are 107 years old.

The woman picked up the phone. “No sight of her,” she said. “The flat is in perfect order.” “Well, maybe she went for a walk,” I offered. “Maybe she did,” seconded the woman. “I’ll have a look around.

After an anxious minute or two – losing track of a 107-year-old-woman can be a cause for anxiety – the woman, unflappable, reported that Gigi was down the hall, celebrating her birthday with a neighbor. This seemed more predictable for Gigi than a stroll in Belsize Park at 4 p.m. in November, when it would have soon been nightfall, too dark for even a daring 107-year-old.

The mystery woman, who upon request identified herself as Wendy, said she had come by to play her daily Scrabble game with Gigi. I didn’t know about that part of Gigi’s routine. I only knew about the walks and the two to four hours of piano practice every day. I called Gigi again before her 7 p.m. bedtime. She was cheerful, but when I probed about how she was doing, she said, “I am getting old.”

Yes, I agreed, but “You are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.” She laughed, and you could hear her whole body ripple with the laughter.

I asked about her piano playing. “How is it going?” “I am learning Bach,” Gigi replied. This was a curious turn of phrase, coming from a pianist who had performed more than 100 concerts in Theresienstadt. Certainly she knew Bach! I remembered her entranced look in “We Want the Light,” as she said “Bach is like the Bible.”

I let it pass and focused on her “two hours a day” of practicing. “When I last saw you, you said four hours. Did you cut back?” “Sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes four – it depends,” she said.

Then, after a short command report about how my family was doing, Gigi emphatically declared, “I wish all of your family all the best, all the time.” And as quickly as that blessing was uttered, the phone call was over. Maybe she was tired. Maybe she was not a phone person. Who cared? At 107, she called the shots.

When I visited her last summer she was much frailer, but her optimism was unchanged. It was a relatively hot day, and we sat opposite each other. The window was open and the apartment dimly lit, probably to keep it cool. Gigi still welcomed visitors in the afternoons. When she had been well enough to get around but not strong enough to venture outside on her own, she had pushed her walker up and down the hallways. This time though, her energy, her words, and the conversation were much more measured. Gigi volunteered, “I cannot see; I cannot hear; I cannot walk, but I am happy. Life is beeeyouuuuuteeful; nature is beautiful.”

She was adamant. “I am an optimist.”

I generally phoned Gigi before the High Holy Days and other holidays. My most recent call to her went unanswered. That was uncharacteristic. At that point, a close friend of hers told me that not only could she not hear the phone, but she was in the hospital. Given my responsibilities, I could not immediately follow up by mail.

Regrettably, time did not wait for me to catch up with her, which is a lesson hard learned about contact with friends and loved ones – not just the elderly, but especially the elderly. Carpe diem, because the diem of the elderly is elusive and tomorrow is promised to no one.

When my son called to tell me that he had read about her death online, the sadness and void that I felt was superseded by the need to tell people about her, to make my students aware of her extraordinary life, even before YouTube and social media rendered her presence viral.

I made sure that a memorial candle was lit and that someone would say Kaddish for her. I resolved to play and sing again, and to be even more grateful, not merely for my own pleasure, but because music is the magic and beauty that Gigi Sommer represented and perpetuated, and because, as she would say, “everything is a present.”

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