Soul Survivors

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.

Alice Herz-Sommer prior to WW II.

Alice Herz-Sommer prior to WW II.

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.

Young Corrie ten Boom

Young Corrie ten Boom

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.

The hiding place in Corrie ten Boom's bedroom.

The hiding place in Corrie ten Boom’s bedroom.

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.

Joyful Corrie ten Boom in her later years.

Joyful Corrie ten Boom in her later years.

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!”

A Joyful Alice Herz-Sommer late in life.

A Joyful Alice Herz-Sommer late in life.

These ladies did more than survive. They survived with their souls intact.

Soul survivors, indeed.

About Kate Loveton

Aspiring novelist. Avid reader of fiction. Reviewer of books. By day, my undercover identity is that of meek, mild-mannered legal assistant, Kate Loveton, working in the confines of a stuffy corporate law office; by night, however, I'm a super hero: Kate Loveton, Aspiring Novelist and Spinner of Tales. My favorite words are 'Once upon a time... ' Won't you join me on my journey as I attempt to turn a hobby into something more?
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17 Responses to Soul Survivors

  1. sandradan1 says:

    Reading this story makes me feel very humble, thanks Kate. I recently watched a TV programme about Judith Kerr, author of the Mog books, who left pre-war Berlin as a child. Total respect! SD

    • Kate Loveton says:

      I’m embarrassed to admit I am unfamiliar with Judith Kerr. Thanks for bringing her to my attention. Yes, such people are worthy of our admiration and respect, I do agree.

  2. Mike says:

    Thank you for this fine article.

  3. stacilys says:

    Wow. Amazing women. Corrie Ten Boon I had heard of and believe I even read a book about her and watched her movie (long time ago). I hadn’t heard of Annie Hertz-Sommer though. Corrie Ten Boon even had to face the man that killed her sister and forgive him, after preaching on forgiveness. Now that’s difficult.
    Excellent post Kate.
    =)

    • Kate Loveton says:

      I remember reading about that incident between Corrie and the man who was responsible for her sister’s death. He approached her after a talk she gave about forgiveness years after her release from the concentration camp. He asked her if she had it in her heart to forgive even him. She recounted her internal struggle to do so, but then said the voice of Christ urged her to do it. And she did.

      Thanks for commenting, Staci.

  4. revgerry says:

    What a beautiful post! Victor Frankl had the same sentiment, that in the end, his ability to choose his responses and to be the person he wanted to be was the one thing the Nazis could not take from him while he lived. I lived in Holland from 1950-1956, with my grandparents, whose hope had been occupied by Nazi officers. They fled to Amsterdam. The city was full of bomb holes, in which we of course played. I have been a lifelong peace activist as a result of those experiences.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Yes, Victor Frankl! Thank you for mentioning him.

      We truly do decide who we shall be each day. It’s a struggle to live with courage in the best of times, but how much more so in times of chaos, violence, brutality! It is not the man with the gun who is the most courageous; it is the man who stands up for his convictions in the face of the gun.

      And what amazing courage it takes to look evil in the eye, and then go on, refusing to allow it to define the rest of one’s life. People who see the worst, and who choose to still seek beauty and happiness in life show great strength. This is not an easy thing. It takes an amazing amount of will.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  5. A powerful post about two truly inspirational women, Kate.

    Stripped of their dignity and their freedom, these women refused to let the hatred that imprisoned them hold them hostage once freed. Forgiveness and love will always overcome hatred and evil, Herz-Sommer and Corrie ten Boom showed this by the way they carried themselves throughout their lives

  6. It’s good to be reminded of this. What heroins!

    • Kate Loveton says:

      It humbles me to think of the bravery of people who’ve been through such horrifying experiences and yet still manage to maintain their humanity and find beauty in the the life. That’s courage. Albert Camus said something that always stayed with me. It went something like this: It takes more courage to live than to kill oneself.

      You’d think these folks would be so haunted by the past that living would be an ordeal for them; what courage to face the world and still be able to love and see goodness where it still exists.

  7. Pingback: QUOTE (Corrie ten Boom) – Feb 28 | A DEVOTED LIFE

  8. Harliqueen says:

    Great post. Makes me realise how grateful I should be in my life 🙂

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