books, history

Would You Like to Live to a Hundred Years Old?

Three months ago, I finished reading “A Garden of Eden in Hell”. The book is about Alice Herz-Sommer, her life, her experiences in the concentration camp, her music and how she shielded her son from the reality of the Nazi atrocities. The book was a present from my husband from one of his business trips. He chose the book because the front cover says “Where a mother’s love triumphed over the Nazi’s” without really knowing that at one point I was engrossed with stories about the Holocaust. Naturally, I was engrossed with this book. Alice Herz-Sommer is a pianist who performed before, during and after her years in the Thereienstadt ghetto. Her musicality, aside from her optimism, played the greatest role why she lives to this day at the age of 104 years old.

While I love listening to instrumental, particularly classical, music I have zero knowledge when it comes to music in general. Hoever, I read in awe how Alice’s, and other Jews, life in the ghetto was presented through her recital of Chopin’s 27 Etudes, said to be the hardest to master among the piano pieces. The pianist herself thought that “the ability to master all of the 24 Etudes and then to perform them on stage was a proof of the highest achievement and seemed quite unthinkable”. But she performed the pieces and the writers (Melissa Muhler and Reinhard Piechocki) were masters in relating the lives and the happenings in the concentration camp as each piece iis performed. If the reader is musically-knowledgeable, I am sure he/she will be able to appreciate it more than I did. I only appreciated the way it was written. I can’t relate much to the emotions of the pieces (Etudes) but I did relate to it emotionally by way of my little knowhow about the Holocaust.

In the earlier part of the book, I was struck by the wit with the way Alice and her twin sister, Mizzi, were compared. Early in their childhood, Alice was already seen as the optimist while Mizzi was the pessimist. In one of their classes, they were asked the difference between optimists and pessimists. Alice forwarded “Optimists always see the best; they spread happiness. Pessimists are the worst, they scatter gloom”. Mizzi’s was “Pessimists see the truth; optimists ignore it”. Which do you subscribe to?

The optimism that Alice subscribes to was very dominant throughout her life. To this day, when I googled her up after I finished reading her story, she has this to say why she survived (Theresienstadt, the loss of her husband, deaths of family and her only son):

“My temperament. This optimism and this discipline. Punctually, at 10am, I am sitting there at the piano, with everything in order around me. 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. I walk a lot with terrible pains, but after 20 minutes it is much better. Sitting or lying is not good. In any case, life is beautiful, extermely beautiful. And when you are old you appeciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything.”

When I was in high school, I found many old books many old books from my grandmother’s house. I never thought my find would define my love for reading. For some reason (I know that my grandmother was passionate about mahjong but never read books) I was an accidental recipient of osme of the great novels ever written. In high school, while I was devouring Mills and Boons, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele and some pf those thick romantic novels modeled by Fabio, I was spradically attacked by the desire to open one of those finds. To this day, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina and Leon Uris’s Mila 18 accumulate dusts in the small bookshelf in my room in Iloilo. Two worn-out small books of classical poetry are also waiting for the next interested hands.

Those books came to mind because Leon Uris’ Mila 18 was one of them. My high school mind never expected to be immersed into the tragedy that was the Holocaust authored by one madman, Hitler. But I was engaged. Honestly though, I was really engaged by the love story more than the entiments in the ghettos. But it was the start of my awareness of the ghettos and what they represented.

The negative emotions I associated with the Nazis, the swastika, the Holocaust, the ghettos, the gassing f Jewish children were actually healed by the untarnished positive outlook of Alice Herz-Sommer. She, who went through the atrocities, lost a husband, lost a mother and who had to go through every day in the ghetto not knowing if the next day she would still be facing life or death lives to thus day saying “Life is beautiful, extremely beautiful”.


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