What I learned from Alice Sommer Herz

 

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Last April at just about this time I was the dinner speaker at Diabetes Sisters’“Weekend for Women.” One hundred women with diabetes gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina for a weekend of bonding and learning. The weekend’s theme was ‘Celebrating Our Strengths’ and that was the theme of my talk.

I began with the life story of Alice Sommer Herz, the oldest living survivor, now 108 years old, of the Holocaust. You are probably wondering, as were the women gathered in front of me, why I would talk about a Holocaust survivor? This is why: Alice is a perfect example of using our strengths to get through troubling – for her harrowing – times, and thrive. 

Alice, her husband, Leopold, and their six year old son, Stephan were rounded up and sent to the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstaadt. Alice’s mother had been sent there three months earlier. Her mother would die in the camp. Her husband would die in an extermination camp and Alice and her son would two years later be freed. 

When Alice entered the camp she was already a budding concert pianist and she was ordered to play in Theresienstaadt’s orchestra. She knew she had a choice: refuse or resent the request or let music be her salvation and release her from the day to day suffering. Forty-four thousand people lived in the camp barracks that were built for three thousand. A piece of bread and bowl of broth was all they got to eat for the day. But Alice let go of anger, which could have destroyed her strength and spirit, and chose to play music with an open heart.

Alice survived, one might say thrived, under such austere, horrid conditions because she did not succumb to anger, resistance and hatred. Do you see a connection now with diabetes? She spent as much time as she could doing what she loved, playing music. She found a personal reason to stay as healthy as she could, which was to protect her son. And she remained hopeful for a better future. Throughout, Alice did not hate but maintained her optimism.

Reading Alice’s autobiography, A Garden of Eden in Hell, I found so many lessons for us living with diabetes:

1) Find a reason why it’s important to you to stay healthy

2) Grieve and move on, always looking forward

3) Rely on your strengths to get you through

4) Do more of what you love

5) Have a network of support

6) Be hopeful and expect things to get better

As Alice wrote in her book, “I have never learned to give up hope.” And neither should we.

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