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What Alice Herz-Sommer Taught Me About Life

"Everything is both good and bad. I choose to look at the good."

Key points

  • "It depends on me whether life is good or not. Not on life, on me."
  • "Even the bad is beautiful if you know where to look for it."
  • "Calmness is strength."

Years ago, I happened upon the 39-minute Academy Award winning documentary by Malcolm Clarke called The Lady in Number 6. It tells the story of the life of Alice Herz-Sommer, pianist and Holocaust survivor, born in Prague, who died at the age of 110.

The movie touched my soul, not because of the experience she had in the camps but because of the person she was and her approach towards life. She was born an optimist and was always laughing, even in the camps.


I’ve felt that the film contains all the life lessons a person needs to live a happy life so I started showing it at the end of each divorce recovery retreat I would run, in spite of the fact that it has nothing to do with divorce. The women watching always reacted as I did, inspired to love life.

It had been a while since I've shown the film so after re-screening it this week, here are some key takeaways. Most are from Alice Herz-Sommer (AHS), a pianist, but the film includes her two friends, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (ALW), a cellist and Zdanka Fantlova (ZF), an actress (who incidentally died at the age of 100), who also survived the camps by performing - a way the Nazis tried to prove how well the prisoners were treated. Their lessons are also shared:

  • It depends on me whether life is good or not. Not on life, on me. (AHS)
  • Calmness is strength. (ZF)
  • Survival is complex and a matter of attitude. (ALW)
  • Even the bad is beautiful if you know where to look for it. (AHS)
  • When you’ve been so close to death, you realize only two things are important: life itself and human relations. Everything else you can do without. (ZF)
  • When you walk part of your life with someone and you come to a crossroads and he leaves, appreciate it and say thank you. (ZF)
  • Everything in life is both good and bad. I choose to look at the good. (AHS)
  • I don’t hate anyone. Hatred breeds hatred. (AHS)
  • It never occurred to me that I wasn’t going to survive - this is happening to me but it’s not about me. (ZF)
  • Every day in life is beautiful . . . every day! (AHS)
  • Only when we are so old, only, are we aware of the beauty of life. (AHS)

In the film, Alice tells the story of her beloved son, Raphael, who was with her as a child in the camps. He grew up to be a cellist and had a brilliant concert career. One day when he was 64, he wasn’t feeling well so he went to the hospital. He was given an anesthetic and he never woke up. Somehow, Alice manages to extract the only positive aspect of this tragedy and said, “I thank god a hundred, hundred, hundred times a day that he didn’t suffer.” That is an extreme example of how she managed to look at the good.

It’s so important to have mentors in life and I’m so grateful that I have Alice Herz-Sommer.

More from Vikki Stark M.S.W., M.F.T.
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