I just finished reading ‘By Chance Alone’, the personal memoir of Max Eisen, my mother’s cousin. He survived incarceration at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, witnessing his whole immediate family being exterminated over the course of one year. Despite going through numerous torturous events, any of which could have been his last moments – he lived, and has gone on to give so much joy and insight to others.
The book was a gripping read – strangely. Sometimes I wonder – why does it still interest me to read of this tragic, horrific beyond words event in history? A part of me wants to run from it – such unbelievable cruelty is hard to digest. A part of me feels connected to it – being Jewish on my mother’s side, I grew up thinking ‘that could’ve been me’. I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was about 9 years old, and cried profusely at the end – not expecting her story to end in death. I felt fascinated by this nightmarish period – where things that could never have been imagined, came to pass.
Perhaps the thing that captivates me most is the stories of those that survived. Their tenacity, their tolerance, their determination to live, is simply humbling. It would be wrong to paint them all with broad stroke heroism. They are all heroes, no doubt – to endure such an experience and still have a shred of love and compassion within your heart is a wondrous feat. But each fight, each victory was as unique as the very personality of each camp prisoner.
Shortly after finishing the book, I stumbled on a little film on YouTube about Alice Herz-Sommer – who until her death in 2012, at the age of 110, was the world’s oldest known Holocaust survivor. I post the video for you here – an excerpt from the Oscar winning documentary short ‘The Lady in Number 6’, but there are many more to be found…
As a concert pianist, she literally played for her life in the Theresienstadt camp. Here she describes the situation:
We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year. The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.
I was simply astonished by her attitude. In another film, an interview with author and speaker, Tony Robbins, she claims that it is her optimism and refusal to stop laughing and smiling, that have kept her alive for so long. She claims this one of the reasons why her twin sister, ‘a pessimist’ died at age 74.
I look at the good. When you are relaxed, your body is always relaxed. When you are pessimistic, your body behaves in an unnatural way. It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.
Her story touched me, and reminded me of the gift of music, the power of simple joy and contentment, and most of all, the amazing physical and mental effects of an optimistic attitude.
Optimism doesn’t come easily to me. I think I was born anxious! Learning to trust, believe that I am protected at all times and that every step is guided by God is a lifetime journey. But thanks to my mother, and other joyous optimists around me, I am learning. And it is beautiful! I understand that optimism is not a matter of being naively blind to reality, but choosing to see and focus on the positive. Little by little, I realise that to be this way is not only of benefit to me, but to all whom I connect with. Alice demonstrated this in a most memorable way as she spoke of how she never stopped laughing and smiling in the concentration camp, to keep her five year old son’s spirits up.
In the Bhagavad Gita it is said that the nature of the soul, covered by illusion is to ‘hanker and lament’ – hanker for those things we desire and do not have, and then lament when we get them, because they are impermanent, or we still desire more. The stories of Max, Alice, and so many of their fellow Holocaust survivors remind to be grateful for life, love, and freedom. They humble me – who laments over petty things, and they teach me to hanker for those things that are truly worthy and enduring.
“Even the bad is beautiful, it has to be.” — Alice Sommer-Herz