A Century of Wisdom : Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor
An inspiring story of resilience and the power of optimism--the true story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor.
At 108 years old, the pianist Alice Herz-Sommer is an eyewitness to the entire last century and the first decade of this one. She has seen it all, surviving the Theresienstadt concentration camp, attending the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and along the way coming into contact with some of the most fascinating historical figures of our time. As a child in Prague, she spent weekends and holidays in the company of Franz Kafka (whom she knew as "Uncle Franz"), and Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, and Rainer Maria Rilke were friendly with her mother. When Alice moved to Israel after the war, Golda Meir attended her house concerts, as did Arthur Rubinstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Isaac Stern. Today Alice lives in London, where she still practices piano for hours every day.
Despite her imprisonment in Theresienstadt and the murders of her mother, husband, and friends by the Nazis, and much later the premature death of her son, Alice has been victorious in her ability to live a life without bitterness. She credits music as the key to her survival, as well as her ability to acknowledge the humanity in each person, even her enemies. A Century of Wisdom is the remarkable and inspiring story of one woman's lifelong determination--in the face of some of the worst evils known to man--to find goodness in life. It is a testament to the bonds of friendship, the power of music, and the importance of leading a life of material simplicity, intellectual curiosity, and never-ending optimism.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Spiegel & Grau
March 20, 2012
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger
Alice and Franz Kafka
As she unlatched the garden gate, eight-year-old Alice caught her first glimpse of a tall, very thin young man who, many years later, would be known as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Franz Kafka was Uncle Franz to Alice. He had arrived in a horse-drawn cart with a little bunch of multicolored flowers for her mother. As the flowers wilted in the sun, Kafka stopped to feed the horse apples that had fallen to the ground. "Poor Franz," Alice reminisces. "He apologized for the flowers. But not because of their sad state but because there were so many different colors. He said he just couldn't decide which color to choose."
Alice had two older brothers, Georg and Paul, and two sisters, Irma, who was twelve years older than Alice, and Marianne, nicknamed Mitzi, who was Alice's twin. Irma had become engaged to Felix "Fritz" Weltsch, an outgoing young philosopher who had met Kafka when they both were studying law at Charles University. Rejecting law as their profession, they became fast friends when they worked together in the same insurance firm. Away from work Weltsch pursued a second doctorate in philosophy, while Kafka wrote and began to publish, and together with Max Brod and Oscar Baum they formed a writers' group, the "Prague Four." Later they befriended a teenage poet, Franz Werfel.
It was only natural that Weltsch would invite his best friend to meet his future in-laws. "He very often came to our house," Alice explains. Kafka felt so at ease in the Herzs' literary and musical home that he became a regular at their Sunday table. "He was [like] a member of our family," Alice says. Struggling with his Jewish identity, he found the warmth of their secular German Jewish life reassuring. Throughout his life Kafka settled on a kind of middle road with regard to his Jewish heritage, living by Jewish values, without adherence--other than his Bar Mitzvah--to organized religious traditions. He presented himself to the world and to his friends as a member of the European bourgeoisie, impeccably mannered and properly dressed. It is nearly impossible to find a photograph of Kafka casually clothed. As a child Alice thought it was strange that Franz always looked dressed for the office even on outings or picnics.
Observant Alice was quick to analyze and accept Kafka's ways. He could be depended on to be late, to forget something, and even to lose his way--and then he would arrive apologizing for all of the above. He was so apologetic that it felt to Alice as if he were apologizing for the food he ate or even for simply being alive. But once he got past this, he was a lot of fun, and very responsible with children. In summers Kafka, who was fond of swimming, would organize parties under the Charles Bridge. Alice and Mitzi were often invited, along with Irma and her fianc�. Long before she met Kafka, Alice had become a superb swimmer and had no difficulty racing across the Vltava River.
One of Alice's most endearing memories of Kafka was the cloudless summer day he showed up unannounced at their country house on the nanny's day off. The twins were fidgety and impatient; they wanted to explore the nearby forest or go somewhere for a picnic. Kafka suggested a walking expedition in the surrounding countryside. Sofie reluctantly gave her permission, and with Alice and Mitzi as companions, Kafka took off for an adventurous day of exercise and fun. He was a speed walker, having taken up the sport to build strength in his frail body. The little girls did their best to keep up, but after the first mile, they had to slow down and then stop for a break. Kafka found a log the twins could use for a bench and a tree stump for himself. From his perch he commanded their attention with stories about fantastic imaginary beasts. The more they laughed the wilder Kafka's inventions became. After an hour or so he produced "magic" sandwiches and a thermos of tea, which he claimed an invisible animal, half-bear and half-goat, had left for them in the woods. The great writer-to-be had as much fun as his charges.
Alice would always remember Franz Kafka as an "eternal child."
From the age of nine Alice would sit beside her mother and listen to Kafka talk endlessly about the book he was writing or the one he wanted to write. Her mother was fascinated with the writer's gifts, as literature and music had become an escape from her unhappy arranged marriage. Sofie was particularly intrigued by Kafka's opening sentences, which were modern, even revolutionary in the early years of the twentieth century. He began his novel The Trial with "Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested." The Metamorphosis begins with "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." And The Castle draws the reader in with "It was late evening when K. arrived."
Alice would beg him to tell her the stories over and over again. But she always wanted to know the ending--and that he could not answer. He simply could not complete his work. Later on he would write, "I am familiar with indecision, there's nothing I know so well, but whenever something summons me, I fall flat, worn out by half-hearted inclinations and hesitations over a thousand earlier trivialities."
When Alice and her mother asked him why he went to law school and became an attorney if he did not want to practice law, Kafka's answer was simply that he could not decide what to study. He made this doubly clear when, after quitting Richard Lowy's law firm, he wrote, "It had never been my intention to remain in the legal profession. On October 1, 1906, I entered his service and remained there until October 1, 1907."
One year Kafka celebrated Passover with the Herz family. Despite his distaste for observing such traditions, he found Passover with Alice's relatives a joyful family affair. He seemed to tolerate and even accept in the Herz home precisely what he despised in his own family, especially his father's hypocritical annual practice of Jewish traditions. In A Letter to His Father, Kafka wrote, "I could not understand how, with the insignificant scrap of Judaism you yourself possessed, you could reproach me. . . . Four days a year you went to the synagogue, where you were . . . closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously."