Book Review: A Century of Wisdom

Every once in awhile we get little reminders of why we as music teachers do what we do, and why music is so important in this world that we live in. One of those reminders came to me this week in the form of a book. I had the opportunity to read an excellent book, "A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor." After I picked it up I could hardly put it down!

The book chronicles through vignettes and personal accounts the amazing life of Alice Herz-Sommer, a Czechoslavakian pianist and piano teacher who survived the concentration camp Theresienstadt during the Holocaust. She went on to live and teach in Israel for many years, and now at the age of 108 she lives in London and still practices the piano for at least three hours daily - playing the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schubert.

Theresienstadt was a place where many "privileged" or educated Jews were sent during the Holocaust, before being shipped to Auschwitz. Notably, there were many musicians sent there, including Alice and her family. At one point there were at least four concert orchestras made up of Theresienstadt prisoners. Alice was allowed to practice for one hour each day (all by memory), and she gave many, many recitals and concerts. Hers is a story of how music literally helped to save her life. Music allowed her and others in the camp a reprieve from the horrible realities taking place. It is ironic that the Nazi guards ordered them to perform more frequently, and in allowing them their music they actually helped save them. It allowed them to escape their horrible reality and to be uplifted by the meaning in the music. The music was their "sustaining power," their way of "remembering [their] inner selves, [their] values." The music provided comfort and hope to not only the musicians performing, but to those listening.

Alice has lived her life, despite her horrible experiences, with optimism, energy and gusto. This book is an inspiration and a breath of fresh air. Despite its serious topic, it is uplifting and optimistic (just like Alice!). It talks about her experiences during the Holocaust, but also her fascinating childhood where she got associate with people such as Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka, and Sigmund Freud; her happy post-war years in Israel as a pianist and teacher; and of course her most recent years and the music and good friends who continue to sustain her and bring her joy.

As a pianist and teacher myself, I quite enjoyed the sections that talked about Alice the piano teacher, the outstanding influence she has had on her students, and the importance of music in her life. As Alice said, "I am richer than the world's richest people, because I am a musician."

The book will be released March 20. I highly recommend it to any piano teacher, musician or music-lover!

Enjoy this video clip of Alice Herz-Sommer talking about the power of music to help keep them alive in the concentration camp. "Music was our food," she says. 

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