We didn’t personally interview the people we’ll tell you about here, but their stories–in their own words– seem especially appropriate as we welcome the coming of spring after a long, hard winter. They also highlight the mysterious ability music has to help people survive in dire circumstances.
We just saw a documentary film about Alice Herz Sommer, who died in London this February at the age of 110. She is being celebrated as the oldest living Holocaust survivor, but in pre-war Czechoslvakia she was also celebrated as a rising young pianist. We give you here a wonderful segment of that film, full of her music and wisdom at 109.
The captive audience in Theresienstadt, the camp where she and her little son were interned, knew that the concerts she played were being used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. (“We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year,” she said dryly.) Yet listening to that music also gave them hope and, she believes, kept many of them alive during those terrible years. They came in sick, she says, and after the concerts, they went out feeling stronger.
It literally saved the lives of Alice and her son, Raffi. Alice tells of a gripping moment one night when a young Nazi officer stopped her to thank her for her concerts and told her how much they meant to him. As he turned to leave, he added: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.” And they did.
There are so many quotable ideas in this video and of course the music is wonderful.
And here is another powerful story, one that is inspiring and harrowing in a different way. Josh included this in his book, Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz (Yale University Press, 2004). In 1942 a Jewish trumpeter from Amsterdam, Louis Bannet—sometimes called the “the Dutch Louis Armstrong.”—entered the concentration camp at Auschwitz as a prisoner.
He learned that the camp was auditioning a handful of musicians for the camp orchestra. Taken to a room where instruments were lying around, he met two other inmates who, like him, were blue from frostbite. The leader of the music detail gave the signal for the audition to begin. The first two musicians struggled to make a sound on trombone and saxophone and could not. They were led away.
Then it was Bannet’s turn. “I was standing toward the back of the room and noticed a small stove in a corner …I inched toward the stove and placed my hands on top. My lips were frozen, so I started rubbing to warm them. As my friend placed a trumpet in my hand—I’ll never forget this …he said : ‘Louis, you must play for your life’ ”
At first he could make only a faint sound. Trying again, he was able to manage a few sputtering notes. Finally, just as the guards were walking toward him to take him away, he was able to burst out with the strains of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”
He continued to play in the camp orchestra until his liberation, and so he too survived. Here is the music that saved him.