A Century of Wisdom

books and coffeeDuring Lent I usually give up reading fiction for something a little more theological. It forces me to read something I might easily put aside for the latest bloodthirsty thriller. If left to my own devices I will willingly buy ‘religious’ books but never seem to get time to read them. My ‘unread’ bookcase attests to this. And I hardly ever read during the day except on my holiday. One day I will diary in some readings days and actually stick to it.

On the subject of bloodthirsty thrillers, one of the joys of the clergy conference is the conversations which happen in the Stag Bar. It was there that I discovered how much I had in common with Canon Malcolm Round, which is not something one might have expected. We both share a love of fictional thrillers, the more gory the better. He introduced me to Tess Gerritsen and I introduced him to Phil Rickman’s Merrily series.

But back to my Lent reading this year. I have just finished the first book I read which although not overtly ‘religious’ was certainly spiritual. It is A Century of Wisdom – Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (The World’s Oldest *Living Holocaust Survivor) by Caroline Stoessinger. The book was a real surprise and not what I was expecting at all. I imagined it would be about her life in the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt where she was imprisoned with her son Rafi. In fact there is very little about her time there because Alice never wished to dwell on that, but instead lived life in the moment, always looking forward. Her optimism and strength is an inspiration, especially when you read that she loved people, loved everybody, was so full of joy. How can someone who spent years in hunger and in the worst of conditions be so positive?

*Alice died on 23 February 2014 at the age of 110, after the book was written.

Alice was a concert pianist in Prague before the war and reckons that it was her musical ability which saved her life and her son’s in Theresiendstadt. She was recruited to play in the orchestra there for the Nazis and in propaganda films they made. She lost her parents, and husband in Treblinka and Auschwitz. Before the war she moved in circles of well-known artists and writers: Kafka, Rilke, and Mahler.

After the war she found that she couldn’t continue to live in Prague because of anti-Semitism and moved to Israel and then later in life to London. When she was 99 her beloved son died. She played the piano every day, taught music to make a living, and loved to receive visitors every day.

Some of Alice’s sayings give us a hint of the personality which made her so unique:

A sense of humour keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.

Only when we are old do we realize the beauty of life.

Complaining does not help. It only makes everyone feel bad.

Laughter is wonderful. It makes you and everyone else feel happy.

School is only the beginning. We can learn all our lives.

Stay informed. Technology is wonderful.

My world is music. Music is a dream. It takes you to paradise.

I am richer than the world’s richest people, because I am a musician.

I love people. I am interested in the lives of others.

No one can rob your mind. I admire the Jewish people because of their extraordinary commitment to high education. Education of the children is the most important family value.

We do not need things. Friends are precious.

When I die I can have a good feeling. I have done my best – I believe I lived my life the right way.