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Book Review: Holocaust survivor shines at 108

Published:Sunday | April 15, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Title: A Century of Wisdom: Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor

Publishers: Spiegel & Grau

Author: Caroline Stoessinger

The strength of Alice Herz-Sommer's advice lay in its simplicity. Generosity above all, she says. Gratitude is essential for happiness. Complaining never helps.

As if her 108 years of experience alone were not enough to coax you, there is the overarching fact that draws people to Herz-Sommer's story: She survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp and is believed to be the oldest-living Holocaust survivor.

This isn't an entirely new story. It was the subject of a 2008 book, A Garden of Eden in Hell, and has also inspired a film and varied YouTube clips. But Herz-Sommer's ability to thrive as a celebrated pianist, despite the horror she experienced, is timeless and inspiring, worthy of being told again and again. It is written this time by a fellow pianist, Caroline Stoessinger, who clearly idolises Herz-Sommer.

The centenarian's life is offered in great detail, from her childhood in Prague, through her wartime imprisonment, to a post-liberation life in Israel, to the one-room London flat where she still practises piano to this day.

It also offers a fascinating glimpse of the Holocaust-era relationships between Jews and Nazis. Herz-Sommer tells the author of being brought a warm applesauce cake by a neighbour and her husband, the very man she knew to be a Nazi. The next day, she was sent by the Nazis to Theresienstadt. At the camp, she tells of playing the piano with such skill that a guard thanks her profusely for her performance and promises that Herz-Sommer and her son will be kept safe.

Though the author's reverence for her subject does shine through, the book suffers at times from a disjointed chronology and writing that can fall flat. We are offered profiles of Herz-Sommer's students, accounts of her brushes with the famous, even recipes from her kitchen. What we yearn for, though, is for her masterpiece of a life to be illuminated consistently in perfectly lyrical passages.

The book is at its finest when Herz-Sommer's voice is allowed to drive it, not only telling us of her Holocaust experience, but also allowing us a peek at who she is in old age. We find her still animated by the presence of attractive young men, still dishing out advice on love and relationships, still able to distill wonderful morsels of wisdom for visitors.

She tells us that music saved her life, that each day is a new miracle. She tells us to treasure time, that each moment is fleeting. And she says that even when she's surrounded by young people, she feels as if she's the youngest.