At the time of her death on February 23, 2014, Alice Herz-Sommer was believed to be the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor, having reached the incredible age of 110. A few years ago, I visited Alice in her flat in northern London, where at the age of 106 she was still living independently.
Alice walked across the room, greeting me warmly with hand outstretched. She immediately made me feel welcome. After being with her only a few minutes I was awed by Alice’s simple way of finding beauty and pleasure in everything and anything, especially music and nature. Her optimism was irrepressible. “I have a friend who is always complaining about everything – old age, the weather, Meals on Wheels… You have to choose: you can either complain, or be grateful. So I tell her: ‘Be thankful!’ It is really possible: you can learn to be grateful for everything that happens to you.”
In the face of her life experiences, I found Alice’s attitude practically unbelievable. Alice was born in 1903 in Prague, and lived through both world wars. World War Two had a deep effect on her life. Being of Jewish decent, her comfortable and easy life was disrupted forever. At an early age Alice became a skilled concert pianist and was at the height of her fame when Hitler’s anti-Semitic practices began to ruin her career. By then she had married and was the mother of a young son. Slowly, one after the other, her rights were taken away. She was banned from buying certain goods and was forced to wear the yellow Star of David as a sign of her Judaism.
In 1942, Alice’s mother was deported and killed by the Nazis. The following year, she and her family were shipped to Theresienstadt (Terezin), a “model” concentration camp in which the Nazis tried to make a good impression for inspection. From there her husband was transferred to Auschwitz and later Dachau, where he died of typhus. Alice never spoke to him or saw him again after their separation at Theresienstadt. Miraculously, both Alice and her son survived the concentration camp and were released at the end of the war.
Throughout all these traumatic experiences music was Alice’s lifeline. Playing the piano uplifted her and soothed her soul. At Theresienstadt inmates were allowed to play instruments to help please inspectors. Alice put on hundreds of concerts, and mastered some of the most challenging pieces. She said this made her happy.
Soon after the war, Alice told me, she realized that “hatred only brings hatred,” and she raised her son shielded from this hatred. “It doesn’t help to hate. The enemy does not become better when I hate him. He only hates me back more. I can only change him when I can help him to see how beautiful the world is – how beautiful life is.”
Alice believed that everyone is born with both bad and good in them – in some the good comes out and in others the bad. “To forgive – that is the main thing in life. We are not angels! We are humans, and we all hurt each other. We all have evil in us as well as good. So we cannot live without forgiving. We have to forgive, forgive, forgive – over and over.”
This belief helped Alice come to terms with the evils done to her. She would say, “I know about the bad things, but I look for the good things.” Alice felt this attitude of always looking to the good is what led to her longevity. “Good and evil cannot exist without each other – just like light is not light without darkness. Do you understand? Both good and evil must always be there, and it’s a matter of what you choose to focus on, what you are living for.”
In her last years, everything in life was a miracle to Alice: the brain, nature, and music (she still practiced the piano daily). “It’s all a miracle – from technology like the internet to the way my dead son comes alive again for me when I watch videos of him playing his cello. But especially wonderful is nature! Just think of something like a flower – where does a red blossom get its red from? Or a blue one its blue? The mystery of creation! Isn’t all of life a miracle?” How, in the midst of all this beauty, Alice mused, can people do evil things?
Alice said that the older you get, the more beautiful life is and the more you appreciate it. And hardships? “The more difficulties you have to face – the more hard things you go through – the richer your life will be. An easy, comfortable life – just going to the supermarket every day – that is so boring! Where is the meaning in that?”
Her advice to the young? “Keep learning. Never stop. There is so much to experience. And keep your eyes open. If you look, you will always find a new reason for enthusiasm. Often you can even find a virtue in what looks bad.”
Anyone who is weighed down by the cards life has dealt, or is burdened with grudges, big or small, should take into consideration Alice’s attitude and try follow her amazing example.
For more on Alice's amazing life, view this documentary video.