It is a question of enormous weight, whether or not the human spirit can grow beyond its means and flourish in the face of evil. For centuries, iconic figures, writers, philosophers, and politicians have quoted about how being pushed beyond our limits, suffering immensely in inconceivable situations, is precisely what fills the human heart with strength. The strength to overcome, to love more strongly, and to appreciate life in a way that only pain can provide.
Alice Herz-Sommer is the world’s oldest living holocaust survivor – and today (November 26, 2013) she celebrates her 110th birthday, against incredible odds. The Czechborn pianist and writer, who now lives alone in a small London flat, is famous for her irrepressible warmth and optimism despite the chilling truth of her history.
Alice is a smiling old lady who sees only the beauty of life, rather than the darkness of death. She was described by the British media as “a testament to the human spirit, and what it can overcome” and she most certainly is.
“You have to be optimistic, and look for the good. Life is beautiful. Beauty is everywhere”, she said.
Born in Prague to a high society family, Alice was heading for a shining career as a concert pianist, before her entire family was rounded up by the Nazis in 1943. Her parents were killed, her husband perished in a death camp, and Alice, then 39, was left to care for their small son on the icy floors of the Theresienstadt concentration camp (Terezín), some 60km from the city.
However, her fate was different to what the war had planned for her. Alice’s piano talents proved to be of tremendous value to the Nazis, who postponed sending her to the gas chambers so they could use her for entertainment and propaganda purposes. Time passed, and eventually the war was over, returning Alice and her son with their freedom.
Today, Alice is a local and national hero, but at the age of 110, her health has finally started to fade, and her family has requested that she is given her peace from the media. Her birthday will be spent without visitors and fuss, and her grandson Ariel will spend the day by her side at her flat.
He said: “The image given on the internet is that she is quite active but the reality is quite the opposite and in fact her health is failing both physically and mentally, unfortunately”.
Leo Pavlát, Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, said: “I would like to wish Mrs. Alice Herz-Sommer all the best for her 110th birthday. It is symbolic that she is the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor: she embodies the best of the Jewish world that the Nazis wanted to destroy, and she brings a message of challenge and encouragement to all future generations”.
In 2012, Alice’s book was published, called A Century of Wisdom, telling the tail of her life behind the barbed wire fence, and how she found her optimism to survive. Former Czech President Václav Havel wrote an introduction to the book, where he said he found Alice an inspiration.
He wrote: “(Alice Herz-Sommer) is one woman who has crossed decades and national borders to defy death and to inspire us all.”
He added: “Alice Herz-Sommer’s life illustrates a deep ethical and spiritual strength. Her memories are our memories. Through her suffering we recall our darkest hours. Through her example, we rise to find the best in ourselves.
“Alice has said ‘I never give up hope’. This sentiment resonates strongly with me, for I believe that hope is related to the very feeling that life has meaning, and as long as we feel that it does, we have a reason to live”.
“If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example.”
― Anne Frank