Thursday, 31 January 2013

Today's Inspiration: Meet Alice Herz-Sommer, World's Oldest Holocaust Survivor, & World’s Oldest Concert Pianist


At 108 years old, Alice Herz-Sommer is both the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, and the world’s oldest concert pianist. She was eight years old when the Titanic sank, saw the start and end of the first world war, survived the atrocities of the Nazi prison camps, outlived her mother, husband and only son, and is a twenty-five year cancer survivor. Through unspeakable tragedy, Alice is still smiling, victorious over the anguish, pain and death that could have killed her shining spirit many decades ago. Alice is an incurable optimist.

At 108 years old, Alice Herz-Sommer is both the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, and the world’s oldest concert pianist. She was eight years old when the Titanic sank, saw the start and end of the first world war, survived the atrocities of the Nazi prison camps, outlived her mother, husband and only son, and is a twenty-five year cancer survivor.
Through unspeakable tragedy, Alice is still smiling, victorious over the anguish, pain and death that could have killed her shining spirit many decades ago. Alice is an incurable optimist. 

After everything she's been through, how has Alice managed to keep such a positive outlook on life? The short answer is: by playing the piano and rejecting hate. Like she says, "hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated". 


Alice’s Survival Lessons

Here are 8 lessons we can learn from the life of this extraordinary woman:

1. Learn, learn, learn.

Alice’s mother had a love of learning and instilled in her children a desire to hungrily pursue knowledge, “to learn, to learn, to learn, to know, to know” Alice remembers. All through her life, it is the strength of Sommers’ mind that sustained her. She believes in putting something in your mind everyday that no one can take from you. Up to the age of 104, Alice would make the trek three times per week to a nearby university to study history, and philosophy. Even now, every Saturday, she keeps her intellectual brain limber by playing Scrabble with a friend.

2. Be disciplined. Work hard.

According to Alice, “Work is the best invention, the best.” Even past the age of 100, playing the piano is still a discipline for her. Every day she starts with an hour of Bach followed by the rest of her pieces, in order not to forget. It is not easy, and she has to play with only eight of her fingers. But, she says “It makes you happy to have something”.  According to Alice, we must always be purposefully engaged. “The worst thing is life, in my opinion, is boredom – when people don’t know what to do with themselves”. Alice asserts, “boredom is dangerous”. When it comes to diet, Alice applies discipline, too. “For 30 years I have eaten the same, fish or chicken. Good soup, and this is all. I don’t drink, not tea, not coffee, not alcohol. Hot water.” As for exercise, even at her age, Alice says “I walk a lot with terrible pains, but after 20 minutes it is much better. Sitting or lying is not good.”

3. Laugh.

Alice’s strategy has not only been to think happy thoughts, but to show it by laughing. She is convinced this is what kept her young son alive, even as he witnessed daily atrocities for two years in the Nazi camps. “Everything is good and bad. So look at the good side and laugh.” “And I was always laughing – even there, I was always laughing.” Many people may have called Alice’s attitude fake along the way, or even accused her of being in denial, but Alice has had the last laugh, and the best.

4. Look inside yourself for strength.

Alice’s bond with her mother was so strong, that when Alice’s mother was taken away by the Nazis, she experienced grief that she thought would crush her. A small voice within told her that the strength to overcome would not come from outside help, not from her friends, her husband or her son. “You alone can help yourself”, Alice remembers stoically. She found that strength by rigorously practicing “for hours and hours” one of the most technically challenging pieces for any pianist, Chopin’s ’24 Etudes’. Her ability to master the difficult music led to her conquering her grief.

5. Don’t complain.

Complaining about a situation never ever changes it. Alice cautions: “All that complain, ‘This is terrible’, it’s not so terrible after all. Complaining changes nothing.” “When you are not complaining…everybody loves you.”

6. Be optimistic. Look for the good things.

“Every day in life is beautiful – if we only look up from our reality”, Alice admonishes. Pessimists “wait for catastrophes, and sometimes the catastrophes come” she says, almost mockingly. “Always look for the good things in life: the world is wonderful, it’s full of beauty and miracles.” Alice credits her longevity to her optimism, saying “this is the reason I am so old, I know about the bad things but I look only for the good things.” “I think about the good. That takes a lot of practice.”

7. Never hate.

“When you know history – wars and wars and wars … It begins with this: that we are born half-good and half-bad – everybody, everybody. And there are situations where the bad comes out and situations where the good comes out.” Alice zealously expresses. “Never, never hate. I don’t hate the Germans. They are wonderful people, no worse than others. Evil has always existed and always will. It is part of our life.” As for Hitler, Sommer dismisses him simply as “a madman”. “I never hate. I will never hate. Hatred brings only hatred.”

8. Be grateful.

When asked what the greatest lesson of her life has been, Alice’s reply is “thankfulness”. “Be thankful for everything, being in good health, seeing the sun, hearing a nice word”, Alice advises. She laments, “Young people take everything for granted… There is electricity, cars, telegraph, telephone, Internet. We also have hot water all day long. We live like kings.” Alice is even thankful for her experience in the camp. “I am thankful to have been there… I am richer than other people.” And to sum her 108 year, Alice says “I have had such a beautiful life”. And when asked about her philosophy of life in a nutshell, this peerless lady surmises simply: “Everything we experience is a gift. Everything is a present.”


If you agree, spread some happiness and share Alice's inspiring story.

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