There is healing and authentic inspiration hovering over Alice Herz-Sommer. She was for many years the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, a pianist and educator from Prag. I know because
at the time of her passing at the age of 110 I was in charge of a Beethoven cycle, giving a series of lectures in the Berlin Philharmonic. As the news of her passing broke in February 2014, I changed my lecture for that evening and spoke about Beethoven from the perspective of Alice Herz-Sommer. She had been inspiring not only my work as a musicologist, but even more so my outlook on life as human being. I am learning from her to distinguish between what matters - and what doesn't.
Alice Herz-Sommer was a renowned concert pianist, born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague during the Habsburg Empire, who was imprisoned with her husband and son Raphael and sentenced to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt (Terezín), where until 1945 about 140,000 prisoners had lived - 38,000 prisoners perished and about 90,000 had been sent to Auschwitz and other death camps. When her husband was sent to Auschwitz, she never saw him again, as many of her extended family and friends. But Alice stayed her course, persisting daily in productive activity to the best of her abilities, surviving with her son these horrific circumstances in such a graceful, powerful way that her son later would talk about his „happy childhood“. Every day. She is said to have spent her final days playing music by Schubert and Beethoven. Documentaries give you a first insight, it pays though to get to know her life and work on a deeper level. Here is a first peek:
Alice Herz-Sommer often commented on what she called "a culture of complaint", marveling why it seems difficult for many to be consistently grateful for life. Her own life is a monument to the fact that joy is not the result of a happy life: Joy is the beginning, joy is the center, joy is life. Her hard, hard experiences with many losses along the way, including the passing of her own son a few years ago, had only the effect of deepening her respect for life itself. Music was her language in which to speak about it, joy was the method with which to lead her life - joy being an exhaustless resource. I trust that Alice Herz-Sommer might agree with the sentiment of the Psalmist, addressing Spirit, God: "Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.“
If a Holocaust survivor can teach us how to tap into the unfailing, bubbling well of joy - which always was and always is outside of the circumstances we live in, which is empowered by divine Love, the ultimate good, out of reach of any mortal constrictions - we can find inspiration and examine with forthright self-criticism what makes our experiences truly hard or difficult. Can we see where we stand, become soft and open for a little course correction here and there, and express a little more grace, self-discipline, and kindness every day? It helps to ponder this insight by Mary Baker Eddy , whose own graceful life stood the test of time:
„A radiant sunset, beautiful as blessings when they take their flight, dilates and kindles into rest. Thus will a life corrected illumine its own atmosphere with spiritual glow and understanding.“
Who is writing?
In my work as Christian Science practitioner and writer I draw on listening to God and listening to people.
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