My Take: 7 life lessons from a Holocaust survivor
By Caroline Stoessinger, Special to CNN
At age 108, Alice Herz-Sommers is the world's oldest survivor of the Holocaust. She was imprisoned at Theresienstadt, which was conceived by Hitler as a "model" concentration camp.
Herz-Sommers - Alice, as I know her - is a pianist. In between summer 1943 and the camp's liberation at the end of the war, she played more than 100 concerts at Theresienstadt. Most were solo recitals culled from memory from her extensive repertoire. She has survived for more than a century with a profound faith in humanity intact and a smile on her face.
As music is her kind of prayer, Alice still practices piano - Bach, Beethoven, Schubert – for three hours every day.
I got to know her in London, where she now lives, through mutual friends who are musicians, historians and Holocaust survivors. For Holocaust Remembrance Day, here are 7 lessons she has taught me:
1. Hatred only begets hatred
Alice recognizes that anyone, anywhere, and at any time can adopt hatred and, worse, can infect others with its venom. Hatred that may begin with one person, like a single pebble cast into a lake, can spread out incrementally to larger and larger groups, and even to entire nations.
"We are responsible for our actions and our words," she says. " 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."
2. Love your work, no matter the situation
Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's "hangman," and his underlings understood that adding musical and artistic events to Theresienstadt could be a huge publicity stunt, to prove to the outside world that all was OK for the Jews.
They ordered the prisoners to form a Freizeitgestaltung, or Free Time Committee, to organize concerts, lectures and other events. Crudely printed posters appeared to advertise the programs.
Prisoners had no money so tickets were free. So many musicians had been sent to Theresienstadt that for a time before the members were shipped to their deaths in Auschwitz, four symphony orchestras could play there simultaneously.
The artists took their performances just as seriously as if they were performing on the world stage. "As our situation became even more difficult, we tried even harder to reach for perfection, for the meaning in the music," Alice says. "Music was our way of remembering our inner selves, our values."
The Nazis failed to understand that the power of music to provide comfort and hope to the performers and their audiences was stronger than the terror of their Nazi masters. Every composition that was written in Theresienstadt, every concert played there, became a moral victory against the enemy.
On Alice's third day in Theresienstadt, she was told to play a recital the following week. "But I need to practice," she responded.
The next morning, Alice found the room where she had been assigned the 9:00 – 10:00 practice slot. With no time to waste, she began to work on her Chopin etudes only to find that the pedal did not work and that several keys stuck repeatedly.
Refusing to be defeated, she quickly adapted to the piano's limitations and began to play with abandon, losing herself in the music. "At least I was making music and that always made me happy," she says.
Despite the conditions in the camp and the inadequate, broken-down, legless instruments provided for concerts, emotionally she may have given her finest interpretations of Beethoven's and Schubert's sonatas in Theresienstadt.
4. In routine there is hope
Despite the filth and hunger, Alice's routine life of working her obligatory factory job, performing, caring for her six-year-old son Rafi, and giving him and a few other children elementary piano lessons in spare moments helped her never to lose hope.
"We were not heroic," Alice says. "We improvised. We managed to keep doing, keep working as usual. To not practice was unthinkable."
5. If you have something spiritual, you don't need as much food
In the camp Alice learned what she could live without. Rather than grieving for what she did not have, she rejoiced in what she had. Alice knew that no one could rob her of the treasures of her mind. "I am richer than the world's richest person because I have music in my heart and mind," she says today.
While performing the prisoners could nearly forget their hunger and their surroundings. Besides the terror of finding their names on a deportation list for Auschwitz, the fear of dying of starvation, typhus, and other diseases had become a reality.
"Music was our food, our religion and our hope," she says. "Music was life. We did not, could not, would not give up."
6. Complaining does not help. It makes everyone feel bad.
Alice is anything but naïve and is acutely aware of the evil that has always been present in our world. "I know about the bad, but I look for the good," she says.
7. Faith is stronger than fear.
As she faces the last years of her life, Alice does not waste time with fears of death and worries about the unknown. "We come from and return to infinity," she says. "The soul lives on without the body." Alice finds consolation in her spiritual theme song, "Urlicht," with its opening words "I come from God and I will return to God."
"Things are as they are supposed to be," she says. "I am still here, never too old so long as I breathe to wonder, to learn, and to teach."