When the world paused last Thursday to kneel as our Jewish friends celebrated Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, I ran into a wonderful character by the name of Alice Herz-Sommer during my morning reading. “Miss Alice,” as we will call her, is 108 years young and is the oldest living survivor of what just might be mankind’s greatest transgression – the genocide of six million Jews during World War II.
“Miss Alice,” a world-renowned concert pianist who today lives in London, just happens to be the superstar of a new book, “A Century of Wisdom,” and what is marvelous is that the book was written by another pianist of considerable aplomb, Caroline Stoessinger. That’s why it flows like a symphony from its first page to its last, but today’s story isn’t about the book.
Rather, it is about a woman who was forced to give over 100 piano recitals in the Theresienstadt concentration camp as the Germans killed her mother and her husband. It is about a woman who, above all else, refused to hate. “Since when has making enemies been a solution? Don’t stand there and cry. Try to understand.”
The more you read about “Miss Alice” and her take on life the more thirsty you become. For instance, on growing old she said, “It’s not so bad … My mind is young, my emotions and imagination are still young but,” she slyly grinned, “I do have some experience, too!”
The people at CNN talked author Caroline into milking the “Seven Life Lessons” from the book she has just published on “Miss Alice.” Why not; the lady is as sharp as a knife and still practices her music – Bach, Beethoven (her favorite) and Schubert – three hours every day. So as we begin a new week, here is what Alice Herz-Sommers feels are the things you should know:
HATRED BEGETS HATRED – "We are responsible for our actions and our words. And each of us must vigilantly guard against prejudice and hatred in our own minds and with the words that fall from our lips. No one is exempt. Hitler could not have come to power except in the climate of excessive hatred."
LOVE YOUR WORK – There were enough musicians in the Theresienstadt camp that four orchestras could play at the same time so Hitler’s henchmen dreamed up a publicity scam, trying to use publicity of the concerts to cover up the true atrocities. But the artists, all professionals, used the performances as moral victories against the enemy. “As our situation became even more difficult, we tried even harder to reach for perfection, for the meaning in the music," she said. "Music was our way of remembering our inner selves, our values."
PERSERVERANCE – On the third day after her arrival at the concentration camp, she was ordered to play a recital but when she began to practice, she found a piano that was in terrible shape, a pedal didn’t work and several keys were stuck. She immediately improvised and began to play, dedicating herself to the music instead of the problems. "At least I was making music and that always made me happy," she said.
THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE – She was assigned a factory job but found time to give her son and other children imprisoned in the camp piano lessons while keeping up with her own practice sessions. “We were not heroic … We improvised. We managed to keep doing, keep working as usual. To not practice was unthinkable."
EMBRACE SPIRITUALITY – “I am richer than the world's richest person because I have music in my heart and mind," she says today. "Music was our food, our religion and our hope. Music was life. We did not, could not, would not give up."
COMPLAINING DOES NOT HELP -- "I know about the bad, but I look for the good," she said. “When people come to visit, much younger than myself, many tell me how bad things are – their money problems, their aches and pains. And worse they tell me how terrible old age is. I disagree, saying, “It’s not so terrible and I’m older than you. Rather than dwell on problems, why not look for life’s gifts? Every day is a present. Beautiful.”
FAITH IS STRONGER THAN FEAR -- "We come from and return to infinity," she said. "The soul
lives on without the body." As the spiritual theme song “Urlicht” notes in its opening words: "I come from God and I will return to God." She said, “Things are as they are supposed to be. I am still here, never too old so long as I breathe to wonder, to learn, and to teach.”
May God continue to bless Alice Herz-Sommers, the oldest living survivor of The Holocaust, and may none of us ever forget the world’s greatest atrocity.