7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
An inspirational life,
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This review is from: A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor (Kindle Edition)
Alice Sommer, aged 108 as I write and still an inspirational person to meet, certainly conveys great wisdom - a wisdom, an inner peace and serenity which, no doubt, have played a role in achieving such longevity: a rejection of bitterness after her experience of the Holocaust in which she lost her mother and her husband and her own ordeal in Theresiensadt; an acknowledgment of the existence of evil without dwelling on it, but instead a constant marvelling at the beauties of life and of nature, (she often says that the older she gets, the more beautiful she finds life); her uncomplainig acceptance of the frailties of old age; the unselfconscious simplicity of the Spartan life which, these days, she lives in a small flat; a lively interest in the world and especially in the people around her; her human warmth and the way this is reciprocated towards her by hundreds of the people she has been in contact with throughout her life; the inspiration she draws from the philosophy of Spinoza and from the lives of the great composers; above all, the solace, the never-ending exploration and inspiration of music which kept her alive, in more senses of the word than one, in Theresienstadt.
All these qualities emerge from the account of Caroline Stoessinger's book, which will be a good introduction for someone who knows little or nothing about Alice Sommer. It is half the length or another biography by Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki called "A Garden of Eden in Hell", which was first published in English five years earlier: see my Amazon review, which gives details of her life (though be warned that three of its readers has complained that it gives away too much.) She certainly has drawn on this, though she has had "countless hours of conversations and filmed interviews [with her] from 2004 to 2011". One does have to ask whether the present book adds anything that cannot be found in the earlier one, and one has to say that there is relatively little of substance: the account of her life in Thersienstadt includes more painful details about the internee Kurt Gerron who was forced by the Nazis to make a sham film about the life of the internees; there is more about Michal Mares, whom she might have married had he not received a seven year prison sentence from the Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia the year before Alice left Communist Czechoslovakia for Israel; Alice's meetings with Golda Meir (who set about peeling potatoes in Alice's kitchen, and who would ask Alice to give her piano lessons once Golda had retired - alas, it never came to that); knowing Daniel Barenboim since his days as a child prodigy and receiving a visit of condolence from him on the death of Alice's son); an illuminating account of the characteristic way in which Alice dealt with the tensions between her son and his first wife. There are the passages about Spinoza, and, above all, there is a more detailed account of how Alice lives now, of her closest friends who still visit her regularly; of tributes from the former music pupils she so inspired with her brilliance and warmth as a teacher. And there is an appendix called "In Alice's Words", in which we get a fair summary of Alice's philosophy of life.
After a brief outline of Alice's life in the Prelude, there is a complete absence of chronology as the author, without any rhyme or reason, darts backwards and forwards in the story. I was initially quite shocked when, after a mere eight pages on Theresienstadt, we suddenly move to Alice meeting Golda Meir in Israel. But we return to Theresienstadt off and on throughout the book. The same is true of episodes in Israel, in London, in Prague. I cannot see the point of such a disorienting technique.
The historical background - the Nazi take-over of Czechoslovakia, the life of Eichmann, the Communist seizure of power etc - is told in more detail than I think is necessary; and, a final and minor point, the Kindle edition is irritatingly sprinkled with dashes in all sorts of inappropriate places.