I learned today that on February 23rd, Alice Herz-Sommer, reported to be the world’s oldest known survivor of the Holocaust, died in London. She was 110 years old at the time of her death. As I thought about Herz-Sommer’s life and her indomitable spirit, I recalled another courageous lady who survived the Holocaust: the brave Dutch Christian, Corrie ten Boom.Two women from different walks of life who ended up in concentration camps. One’s crime was being born a Jew; the other’s was helping Jews escape Hitler’s clutches.
Around the time she was arrested by the Nazis in 1943, Alice Herz-Sommer, a native of Prague, had already begun to make a name for herself throughout Europe as a distinguished classical musician. Much of her family had already left Prague before Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia. But Herz-Sommer stayed behind so that she might take care of her ailing mother, who was later arrested and killed by the Nazis. At the time of Herz-Sommer’s arrest, she was married and had a small son. The three of them were deported to Theresienstadt, the ghetto camp and way station for Jews being sent on to the Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps.
Publicized by the Nazis as a place where culture flourished, the camp served as a propaganda tool for Hitler’s Regime. According to Herz-Sommer, several times a year, the Red Cross would inspect Theresienstadt, and she and other imprisoned musicians would be charged with putting on a concert for them. The camp would be temporarily cleaned up in preparation for the inspection, and musicians, writers and artists were forced to exhibit their work as proof of the camp’s vibrant culture. The Nazis claimed Theresientstadt was a model internment camp. It was anything but. It was a place of death and misery for thousands of people. Disease and malnutrition killed many; others were murdered outright by Nazi guards.
Herz-Sommer and her son managed to survive Theresienstadt and were liberated at the end of the war. Her husband, transported first to Auschwitz and then to Dachau, died of typhus just six weeks before the camp was liberated.
Born in 1892 in the Netherlands, Corrie ten Boom, along with her father and other family members, was active in the Dutch underground, hiding Jewish refugees and helping them escape. When the Nazis discovered the Jewish family hiding out in a secret room built inside Corrie ten Boom’s bedroom closet, they arrested the ten Boom family and Corrie and her sister, Betsie, were sent to several concentration camps before they ended up at Ravensbruck in Germany. It was there that Betsie died in December, 1944, barely twelve days before Corrie was released from the camp.
Alice Herz-Sommer gave more than 100 concerts while interned at Theresienstadt. When asked how she survived, she said it was the music and her positive spirit that pulled her through the Holocaust. The music gave her hope. “Music saved my life and music saves me still… I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”
When Corrie was asked how she managed to keep despair away, she quoted her sister, Betsie: “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.” Music saved Herz-Sommer; ten Boom’s belief in a loving God, even while imprisoned during the dark days of Ravensbruck, saved her.
The stories of Alice Herz-Sommer and Corrie ten Boom capture my heart and imagination. Their stories are not just accounts of physical survival. No, they are much more: they are stories about the ability of the soul to survive evil – and to overcome it.
When you’ve seen the worst that life can throw at you, how do you go on? How do you find the courage to move past the memories? How do you cope with the nightmares?
For Herz-Sommer, she found the courage to go on in her music. Others find it in the telling of their stories, tasking the world to remember.
But Herz-Sommer also found it in the exercise of forgiveness. “I hate no one. Hatred only brings more hatred.”
As I read those words, I wonder how it is possible not to hate. How can you feel forgiveness toward those responsible for so much pain?
Corrie ten Boom said “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”
Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is an act of will. Both women refused to hate. They had witnessed first-hand the power of its destructive force. Having been victims of hatred, these wise women realized the soul could only survive by refusing to allow hatred to crush it. They chose to forgive. They chose to emasculate evil by diminishing its greatest weapon: hatred.
And they looked to the future.
Corrie ten Boom said “Happiness isn’t something that depends on our surroundings… It’s something we make inside ourselves.”
Even after the abominations of the concentration camp? Apparently so. “Every day in life is beautiful,” said Alice Herz-Sommer. “Every day!”
These ladies did more than survive. They survived with their souls intact.
Soul survivors, indeed.