Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust, died Sunday at the age of 110. Herz-Sommer, her husband and their young son were taken from their native Prague to Theresienstadt in 1943. Theresienstadt, which was used by the Nazis in propaganda as a “model” Jewish community, was in fact little better than any other concentration camp. While most of those who passed through Theresienstadt would ultimately perish at Auschwitz or Treblinka, death rates at Theresienstadt were also high. Nevertheless, when, late in the war, the Nazis allowed representatives of the Red Cross to enter the camp, they found, among other things, musicians pouring emotion and power into performances. Many of these performances featured Herz-Sommer and, after she and her son were liberated (her husband did not survive), she became a master pianist and music teacher. A film about Herz-Sommer, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, is nominated for best short documentary at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
The announcement of her passing – and the reflections on her extraordinary life – remind us of the importance of listening to, of seeking out, the stories of survivors. The stories we should hear are not solely about survivors’ experiences as the persecuted Jews of the Shoah, though these are critically important as individual historical records.
An additional, perhaps equally crucial obligation, is to learn from these survivors about human resilience. The life of Herz-Sommer was extraordinary – and yet, it wasn’t. If her life was extraordinary, then so is the life of every Holocaust survivor who rose above the extreme events they withstood and built for themselves a life, a family, a community, a record of service in myriad disciplines. And, so they are.
What we find most curious, or astonishing, in stories like Herz-Sommer’s and so many others, is that these individuals could come back at all from the horrors they experienced and witnessed to become not just functioning members of society, but ones who excel. The soldiers who liberated the concentration camps of Europe, and the witnesses and aid workers who came after, certainly could not have predicted that these members of the surviving remnant would amount to much. As discussed in a feature story this week, a French government report on the 426 “boys of Buchenwald” inaccurately predicted that the survivors would never rehabilitate, that they were irreparably damaged, physically and emotionally, and would not survive to middle age.
In a world that so frequently seems to have not learned the lessons of the past, where generation after generation of people in various parts of the world still experience and witness atrocities, the examples of how human beings can endure and still thrive after catastrophes provide a lesson sadly still needed today. In retrospect, it is easy to see that even well-intentioned people sent to aid and possibly rehabilitate survivors of the Shoah may have unintentionally, if understandably, written off their potential when they saw the conditions of the survivors and their surroundings. Yet, they underestimated the power of human endurance, which had rarely been so tragically strained.
Each one of the individual survivors’ stories is a testament to human capability. The ultimate lesson may be this: every life is extraordinary. And the ability for human beings to overcome adversity sometimes exceeds the human ability to predict such resilience.