Lessons on How to Live From a Holocaust Survivor

What I find most remarkable about Herz-Sommer is how throughout her life she has remained optimistic about life and people and lived from a sense of appreciation. And this has much to teach us.
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In November Alice Herz-Sommer will be 109 years old. Remarkable. Yet even more remarkable is that she's the longest living survivor of the Holocaust. But what I find most remarkable about Herz-Sommer is how throughout her life she has remained optimistic about life and people and lived from a sense of appreciation. And this has much to teach us.

Reading her story in A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, I took away seven lessons, spiritual guideposts if you will, how we can all create a healthier, more profoundly happy life. Personally, I find these lessons particularly prescriptive for living with a chronic illness.

Alice Herz-Sommer was a successful concert pianist when in 1943 she was sent to the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Alice's mother had been sent to Theresienstadt months earlier, yet when Alice arrived she had already been deported to the death camp Treblinka.

The first command Alice was given entering Theresienstadt was that she would play piano for the Nazis' pleasure in the camp's orchestra.

Alice could have nursed hatred and anger that she was now forced to give her beloved music to her captors, but instead she decided playing the piano would be her salvation. She used her love of music to keep herself strong to survive the barbaric conditions.

Lesson 1: Allow yourself to grieve when first diagnosed, and then use your talents and strengths to positively reshape your life. Sidestep anger, hatred, and resistance to manage what you need to and move forward to better take care of yourself.

Rather than resent that her career had been taken away or worry about an uncertain future, Alice used her orchestral time to practice rigorously and become an even better musician.

Lesson 2: Don't focus on possible negative consequences, but learn everything you can about your condition and your care. Expect the time and effort you spend to benefit you now and in the future.

Alice kept herself going to protect her 6-year-old son, Raphael, who had been placed in the camp with her. By making her mission to keep her son alive, she was able to find renewed strength day after day.

Lesson 3: Find your reason -- not anyone else's -- why it's important to you to be healthy. Keep it front and center, especially when times are tough.

In each camp concert Alice played, the horrors around her fell away. She experienced joy regardless of the fact that she played within the confines of a concentration camp.

Lesson 4: Do more of what you love. Spending more time doing things that make you happy lifts you and gives you more joy, regardless of your circumstances.

The orchestra was Alice's extended family and her physical and emotional support. The musicians shared their cigarettes, bread, hopes, struggles, shouldered each other's pain and kept the dream alive that one day they would be free.

Lesson 5: Create a support network around you. We all do better, particularly living with an illness, when we have help and feel we are not alone.

Two years after Alice entered Theresienstadt, she was free. Yet life continued to deliver tragedies. When she left the camp she discovered her beloved husband, Leopold, who'd been shipped to another camp during their internment at Theresienstadt, had died at the death camp Dachau.

Alice then moved to Israel with her son to be part of those who would build the new nation in the desert. She didn't look back on the hardships she had endured; she looked forward committing her life to fulfilling a purpose larger than herself.

Lesson 6: Look for how you can serve others, whether it's helping family members, friends or your community. Living with purpose you gain more than you give.

Alice now resides in the U.K. still taking her morning walks, entertaining friends and practicing the piano. In 2010, the BBC aired a film to honor Alice's life and spirit, titled "Everything Is A Present." Clearly that is how Alice sees life.

In A Garden of Eden in Hell, Alice says she survived because she never learned to give up hope.

Lesson 7: Appreciate what you have and keep a hopeful heart. Living with a sense of gratefulness and hope creates greater physical and mental health.

With all the atrocities Alice Herz-Sommer experienced in the camp she didn't hoard hatred; she looked for the small spaces where the sun shined. With all the losses she's lived through, including the stolen life of her mother, her husband, and the death of her son 10 years ago, she continues to find the good in each day.

Not a bad last thought how to live with a chronic illness -- or how to live without one.

Riva speaks to patients and health care providers about flourishing with diabetes and is the author of "50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life and the 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It" and "The ABC's Of Loving Yourself With Diabetes." Her third book, "Diabetes Dos & How-Tos," will be available in October. Visit her website DiabetesStories.com.

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