Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Healing Fractured Lives: What You will Learn From the Wisdom of a Holocaust Survivor & an Ancient Art of Pottery Restoration

The death on Feb 23rd of the oldest Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer  at the age of 110 gave many of us pause for thought. 

In 1943, by the time she was imprisoned  in the concentration camp in Terezin, Alice was an accomplished musician, married and had a 7 year old child. Playing in the Nazi camp's orchestra, saved her and protected her young son's life. (A documentary of her life just won an Oscar: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life) 

Having her mother transported to Dachau- the death camp, her husband die of typhus in the concentration camp in which she was imprisoned and witnessing the atrocities of the camps, I wondered how Alice not only managed to contain her feelings, survived the wounds of her experiences, but also pieced her life back together. 

How did  she go on to thrive, grow and live a rich, rewarding, remarkably long life?

There is nothing that can compare to the horrors and evil of the Holocaust, but Alice's story begs the question - how do any of us pick up the shards of our shattered dreams and recover from the difficult challenges life throws at us?

Three years ago at the height of my husband's unbearable, unrelenting nerve pain, brain surgery and recovery, as his wife and caregiver, and parent to our 3 sons, I felt many things:-

I felt fragile when I had to be strong.
I felt alone when I was surrounded by people. 
I felt frightened when I had to appear brave.
I felt helpless when I needed to take action.
I felt fractured when I wanted to be whole.

Our family's 'normal'  as we knew it was shattered and it took a long time to pick up the pieces and stick them back together. 

Many of my friends whose lives have been fractured by grief, broken marriages, their own ill health or that of their loved ones,  have had to find ways to glue their lives back together. 

They have wondered whether the repairs will be strong enough to hold them or survive another crisis and how these traumatic experiences could possibly add any value to their lives.

Recently I came across Kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing priceless bowls and other artifacts in the 18th century. It gave me a new insight into what it means to heal from a tragedy, crisis or life-challenge.

Each piece of pottery at that time, like each human life today, was a masterpiece: unique, beautiful and impossible to reproduce exactly

 As one of a kind, if it broke, it was tenderly restored using gold as glue, to fill the cracks. 

Kintsukuroi was the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece was more beautiful for having been broken.

Each piece was repaired as exactingly as possible.

Its cracks and golden stitches become part of its whole, giving it more character, greater uniqueness and the hallmark of having weathered an experience. 

Using gold turned the scars of brokenness into a badge of honor rather than something to hide.

DISH WITH HANDLE (tetsukibachi), 18th century, Takatori ware via (PDF)
We are now three years on from picking up our own broken pieces. And having added a number of other hair-raising family challenges to our crisis list, I have come to see that the emotions I felt, the fears I faced, the  skills I mastered, the battles I fought, worked through and ultimately survived mean I am not the same as I was before.

I cannot go back to being that person, because of what I have learned along the way. 

The experiences I had, the strength, love, friendships, knowledge and skills I found: these are what have been my gold

They have filled the cracks created by crisis and added value, helping the healing as we gradually, glued the jagged pieces back together. 

As each of you go on your life journey, you may struggle with emotional or physical pain. The road is fraught with dead-ends, uphill paths, forks in the road and potholes. 

Each time you manage to find your way through a challenge, you are repairing parts of your life, with a glue made of  gold.  

In each case your gold may come from 
Your unique experience, 
Your story,
Your struggle,
Your hope,  
Your new found wisdom
Your path through your pain.

Your life becomes more multi-faceted, more weathered, more precious because of the gold that has added to your life- experience. 

What it has taught you and what you can then share with others. 

These experiences will change, mold, define and lead you to new places, ideas and people. 

Like the pots repaired with kintsukuroi,  you cannot go back to what you were, but you can move forward, slowly and tentatively at first as the gold hardens and heals. 

As the battle wounds become part of your new normal, your unique scars and wrinkles of survival add dimensions to who you are, to what you have become and what you have to offer to your family, your friends and to the world.

 Alice Herz-Sommers loved her music. In an interview shortly before her death  she answered the question about what kept her cheerful and optimistic after the experiences she had lived through.
She answered,

"I know there is bad in the world but I look for the good." 

When I think about her life in the framework of kintsukuroi, I can picture music as her gold and her optimistic outlook as the added beauty she acquired as a part of her healing.

What unexpected shape has your life taken as a result of your life challenges?

What makes up your gold?  

How has your kintsukuroi made your life more beautiful?

Leave me a comment and tell me how you are doing. 


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  1. Thank you and hopefully a way forward to take some deep, rejuvenating breaths!

  2. I have been reading Benne' Brown, and working on my own healing that way.

    1. Beth - Which of her writings have you found most helpful?

  3. Gilly, thank you! The perspective you shared of turning brokenness into something beautiful is very uplifting...I will refer to this often.

    1. Marie - your writing,your generosity of spirit and your strength are perfect examples of Kintsokuroi. So glad to know you and that this perspective is helpful.

  4. This is a beautiful, reflective and thought-provoking piece, Gilly. I, too, wrote about Alice. Thank you so much for this wonderful post!

  5. Thank you so much for the comment Bonnie! I haven't had a chance to read the post you mention, but I will be sure to go right over to visit!