Book review: A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger

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At 108 years old, pianist Alice Herz-Sommer is the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor... she has faced some of the worst evils known to man, the murder of her loved ones and yet every day for her is still filled with the beauty of life.

A former inmate at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp conceived by Hitler himself as a ‘model’ for others, Herz-Sommer has never lost her irrepressible enthusiasm despite the killing of her mother, husband and friends by the Nazis and, much later, the premature death of her son Rafi.

‘Every day is a miracle’ has always been this remarkable woman’s mantra and now she has shared the wisdom of her life and her experiences with journalist Caroline Stoessinger so that the world can gain hope and inspiration.

And Stoessinger does a brilliant job, allowing Alice’s life to unfold in all its moving and extraordinary drama and providing profound insight into a story that will enrich and inform generations to come.

Born in the Czech capital, Prague, Alice enjoyed a privileged childhood surrounded by all the trappings of the Hapsburg Empire. Her father was a successful merchant and her highly educated mother moved in the circle of well-known writers, musicians and artists like Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan Zweig.

By the time the Second World War began, she was well on her way to a distinguished career as a concert pianist, was married to businessman and amateur violinist Leopold Sommer and had a two-year-old son.

It was at this point that the world around Alice went mad. Czech laws were abolished and the city was deluged with Nazi flags. Her ageing mother was sent to Theresienstadt and she never saw her again.

In 1943, Alice and her son Rafi were also deported to Theresienstadt and her husband was moved on to Auschwitz. Theresienstadt was no ordinary camp; from the outside it looked like a crowded small city but inside it was a ghetto full of Europe’s intelligentsia who suffered hunger, cold, disease, torture and death. Of the 156,000 Jews imprisoned there, a mere 17,500 would survive.

Against the odds, Alice and Rafi came out alive, mainly because the camp’s musicians were allowed to organise concerts and lectures as a huge publicity stunt to fool the outside world.

‘What the Nazis failed to understand,’ says Alice, ‘was that the power of music to provide comfort and hope to the performers and their audiences was stronger than the terror of their masters.’

Music was their way of remembering their inner selves, their values, and so it was that Alice and her fellow musicians, who performed over 100 programmes for fellow inmates, helped others to never lose hope for the future.

After the war, Alice and her son emigrated to Israel where she taught music and built a new life but never again returned to her international career despite performing house concerts attended by the likes of Golda Meir, Arthur Rubinstein, Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern. Rafi became a cellist and at 83, Alice moved to London to be near him. Her greatest heartbreak came a few years later when he died suddenly at the age of 65.

Since then, she has lived alone in a humble apartment dominated by her antique Steinway piano which she still plays for several hours a day.

Alice’s greatest victory has been her ability to live a life without bitterness and to refuse to be shaped by the evil and tragedies she encountered.

‘No matter how bad my circumstances, I have the freedom to choose my attitude to life,’ she declares, ‘even to find joy. Evil is not new. It is up to us how we deal with both good and bad. No one can take this power away from us.’

(Two Roads, paperback, £8.99)