Alice Herz-Sommer and the power of spiritual resilience

A Christian Science perspective: we can learn from the life of the world's oldest Holocaust survivor, who recently passed away, and whose life was commemorated in an Oscar-winning documentary.

The Oscar-winning documentary “The Lady in Number 6” wonderfully depicts the life of Alice Herz-Sommer. This extraordinary woman, regarded for many years as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, died peacefully at the age of 110 in London this February. Born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague during the Hapsburg Empire, Mrs. Herz-Sommer was imprisoned with her son, Raphael, and sentenced by the Nazis to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt. Her husband was sent to Auschwitz, and she never saw him again. But she persisted daily in expressing forgiveness, unselfishness, and productive activity. She transcended her horrific circumstances in such a graceful way that later her son, who also survived the camp, would talk about his “happy childhood.” Herz-Sommer was a renowned concert pianist, and played music by Schubert and Beethoven for hours a day until her passing.

What is it that is so deeply humbling and enriching about encountering such a woman? To me this extraordinary life, lived at the limits of human experience, hints at a sustaining, powerful force much larger than humanity. In Herz-Sommer’s experience classical music symbolized the spiritual qualities of dignity and worth that the Nazis tried to crush out – and through all the horror she stuck to her love of music, focusing on that which represented, for her, life more deeply than anything else.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of The Christian Science Monitor, was herself sustained under different, yet also extremely difficult, circumstances, having encountered many shades of human tragedy, loss, and want in her life. Both women knew firsthand what resilience is about – what it means to continue to love, forgive, and live even in the midst of hatred, ridicule, and disregard. Both women – on different continents, in different times and different circumstances – resisted the urge to give up and give in. Mrs. Eddy describes with poetic words what it is that makes such a life so powerful: “A radiant sunset, beautiful as blessings when they take their flight, dilates and kindles into rest. Thus will a life corrected illumine its own atmosphere with spiritual glow and understanding” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896,” p. 356).

In reality God and goodness are the same, and expressing spiritual goodness wherever we are gives us glimpses of God. There is no better discovery in one’s life than to get to know God and to see the possibilities of “a life corrected” – a life lived with dignity, discipline, and love. An insistence on goodness then becomes the center of our lives.

Herz-Sommer will be remembered as a shining light and outstanding example of what it means to express God through love and forgiveness. As a Jew she would say that Beethoven was her true religion – his music bringing insight into the core of life itself. Yet the Psalms were always close to her, including this wonderful passage on spiritual resilience: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved” (Psalm 55:22).

In physics, resilience refers to the ability of some material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically, and to release that energy upon springing back. Think of a blade of grass, which bends but doesn’t break when force is applied to it. In our day-to-day lives, resilience is what helps us stay graceful under pressure, recover from tragedy, and continue learning, wondering, and living even if prospects are presently bleak. It is such an extraordinary quality because it is unending, because it comes from God and points toward God.

In one of her last interviews, as fresh and joyful as a blackbird in spring, Herz-Sommer concluded: “Life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love.”

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