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World’s Oldest Holocaust Survivor Takes Center Stage in Oscar-nominated Documentary

February 26, 2014 By:
Tom Tugend, JTA
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Alice Herz-Sommer, pictured here on her 107th birthday, has died at 110. Photo by Polly Hancock via JTA.

Editors note: This story has been updated since it originally was posted on Feb. 14.

LOS ANGELES — In her 110 years, Alice Herz-Sommer has been an accomplished concert pianist and teacher, a wife and mother — and a prisoner in Theresienstadt.

She is alao the star of an Oscar-nominated documentary showing her indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality despite all the upheavals and horrors she faced in the 20th century. Unfortunately, she died on Feb. 23, exactly one week before she could find out if the 38-minute film upu for Best Short Documentary at the Academy Awards had won.

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life begins in her native Prague. Alice — everyone from presidents on down calls her Alice — was born on Nov. 26, 1903 into an upper-class Jewish family steeped in literature and classical music.

A friend and frequent visitor was “Uncle Franz,” surname Kafka, along with composer Gustav Mahler and other luminaries.

Trained as a pianist from childhood, Alice made her concert debut as a teenager, married, had a son and seemed destined for the pleasant, cultured life of a prosperous Middle European. But everything changed in 1939 when Hitler, casually tearing up the Munich accord of a year earlier, marched his troops into Prague and brought with him his anti-Semitic edicts.

Her public concert career was over, yet the family managed to hang on in an increasingly restrictive existence in the Czech capital.

In 1943, however, Alice and her husband, their 6-year old son Raphael (Rafi), and Alice’s mother were loaded on the transport to Theresienstadt. The fortress town some 30 miles from Prague was touted by Nazi propaganda as the model ghetto — “The Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” with its own orchestra, theater group and even soccer teams.

With the full extent of the Holocaust still largely unknown, Alice took her deportation with relative equanimity, as was typical for many European Jews.

“If they have an orchestra in Terezin, how bad can it be?” she recalled asking, using the Czech name of the town.

Alice soon found out, as her mother and husband perished there. Alice was saved by her musical gifts; she became a member of the camp orchestra and gave more than 100 recitals.

But her main focus was on Rafi, trying to make his life bearable, to escape the constant hunger and infuse him with her own hopefulness.

“What she did reminded me of Roberto Benigni in the Italian film Life is Beautiful," said Malcolm Clarke, director of The Lady in Number 6. “He plays an Italian Jew who pretends to his young son that life in the camp is some kind of elaborate game for the boy’s special amusement.”

Liberated in 1945, Alice and Rafi returned to Prague but four years later left for Israel. There she taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir, while Rafi became a concert cellist.

Alice said she loved her 37 years living in Israel, but when Rafi, her only child, decided to move to London, she went with him. A few years later Rafi died at 65, but the mother remained in her small flat, No. 6, in a North London apartment house.

Nearly all of the film was shot over a two-year period inside the flat dominated by an old Steinway piano on which Alice played four hours each day, to the enjoyment of her neighbors.

Originally the filmmakers considered Dancing Under the Gallows as the film’s title before going with The Lady in Number 6.

It was a wise decision, for the film is anything but a grim Holocaust documentary with Alice’s unfailing affirmation of life, usually accompanied by gusts of laughter.

Her health and speech had declined in recent months, and she was no longer doing interviews. But in a brief phone conversation, conducted mainly in German, Alice attributed her outlook partially to having been born with optimistic genes and a positive attitude.

“I know there is bad in the world, but I look for the good,” she said, and “music is my life, music is God.”

At 104, she took up the study of philosophy and likes to quote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who said “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

The film is peppered with such observations, which coming from anyone else might be considered a sign of Candide-like naivete.

A sampling of her sayings: “Wherever you look, there is beauty everywhere”; “After a century on the keyboard, I still look for perfection”; “I’m so old because I use my brain constantly. The brain is the body’s best medicine”; and “A sense of humor keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.”

Many of the observations are recorded by Caroline Stoessinger in her book A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor, which forms the basis for the film and her on-screen interviews.

Stoessinger, a New York concert pianist, interviewed Alice and her friends over a period of 15 years and became an ardent admirer of her subject.

“Alice doesn’t complain, she doesn’t look back, she has no anxieties,” Stoessinger said. “Even in Theresienstadt, she never doubted that she would survive.”

Stoessinger also convinced Clarke to direct the film. He won an Oscar in 1989 for his short documentary You Don’t Have to Die, and an Oscar nomination for Prisoner of Paradise, which also focused on life and death in Theresienstadt.

The film’s producer, Nick Reed, like Clarke, was reluctant to take on the new assignment.

“We asked ourselves, who is going to watch another Holocaust documentary with a really old lady? Fred Bohbot, our executive producer, Malcolm and I have really been stunned by the enthusiastic reaction to the film,” Reed said.

Clarke and Reed are British-born Canadians. Neither is Jewish, but as Reed put it, “I am not a Jew, but I’m Jewish.”

Asked about the film’s budget, Reed responded, “About 35 cents, a bus token and bits of old chewing gum.”

The Lady in Number 6 will be released in some 100 theaters across the United States on Feb. 21 and subsequently in other countries.

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