We should not set up Alice Herz-Sommer’s optimism as the ideal to which all Holocaust survivors should aspire.
SO, the luminous Alice Herz-Sommer, Holocaust survivor and pianist, has finally died. The “end of an era” is often proclaimed, but the death of Herz-Sommer – at 110 almost certainly the oldest Holocaust survivor – has a better claim than most.
But, in her fascinating life we can see not only her own remarkable optimism, but also the preoccupations of a generation – ours.
I never knew Herz-Sommer, but she was a friend and neighbour of my mother, Natalia Karp, a fellow Holocaust survivor and concert pianist; so until 2007, when my mother died, I got regular updates – about her daily walks or swims, her Scrabble playing with another musician survivor, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, her disciplined piano practice.
Herz-Sommer’s longevity would be enough to make her intriguing to us today. What gives it added traction is that she seemed to be entirely without rancour and rage: although she lost her mother and husband in the death camps, Herz-Sommer remained utterly engaged with and enthralled by life.
In this sense, her capacity to move beyond the pain of the past is reminiscent of Nelson Mandela. Even the death of her only child, the cellist Raphael, in 2001 failed to closet her in grief.
The word “indomitable” seems to have been coined specially for people like this. In an age much concerned with fostering resilience, and when tragedies from Syria to Ukraine are in the throes of producing trauma, the question of how you encourage such endurance and optimism is a pressing one.
In the case of my mother and, I suspect, Herz-Sommer and Lasker-Wallfisch, music played a prominent part, providing a continuity across ruptured lives, and a conduit and container for powerful, fugitive feelings.
Yet I’m also disquieted by the way in which Herz-Sommer has been feted. Behind it, I suspect, lies a lot of wish fulfilment: a desire to believe that it’s possible to survive trauma unscathed.
You find these redemptive fantasies all too often in writings about Anne Frank, whose ruthlessly decontextualised few lines about still believing that people are good at heart – lines that have become so famous (the ones about people’s innate “urge to destroy ... to kill ... murder and rage” have curiously never found equal fame) – have turned her into an emblem of forgiveness, as though she were in some sense anticipating her own death and absurdly exonerating those responsible.
Or in our gullibility towards the fake memoir of supposed survivor Binyamin Wilkomirski, the Holocaust story that was, perhaps, yearned for as the century in which the Holocaust took place was closing: that of the child who survived what Frank did not, who could take the “late born” into the next century.
You also find it in the bewilderment that greeted Primo Levi’s apparent suicide in 1987, as though he’d cheated those who nurtured the belief that atrocity could be overcome, and that, even to the Holocaust survivor, Life Is Beautiful.
The idea that suffering somehow ennobles often underlay an appreciation of Levi’s writings: it was impossible to accommodate a possibly depressed Levi in such an idealised image.
If we set up this Disneyfied notion of forgiveness – a superhuman ability to erase the past – as a norm, we do further violence to the experience of survivors. It’s as if the reality of atrocity is so intolerable that we demand that survivors demonstrate a capacity to vanquish trauma, at least in public: we turn them into a kind of one-person truth and reconciliation commission. And abandon them once more, alone with their own, less pretty emotions.
So yes, Herz-Sommer was remarkable: we’ll never know what enabled her to manage the traumas that she experienced with such optimism.
But we should never hold her up as an ideal to which all traumatised people should aspire. Nor should we apply the psychobabble concept of closure to genocide when reams of historical evidence – from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust – shows unequivocally that many traumas cannot be processed in the lifetime of the individuals who underwent them, and indeed are passed on to successive generations. – Guardian News & Media 2014
Anne Karpf is the author of The War After: Living With The Holocaust.