See also the obituary for Alice Herz-Sommer at the bottom of this article.

Alice Herz-Sommer, pictured here on her 107th birthday, is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary. (Polly Hancock)
Alice Herz-Sommer, pictured here on her 107th birthday, is the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary. (Polly Hancock)

By Tom Tugend / www.JTA.org

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

Now she is 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.

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, a 38-minute film up for best short documentary at the Academy Awards to be handed out on Sunday, March 2, 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 have declined in recent months, and she no longer does 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 was released in some 100 theaters across the United States on Feb. 21 and subsequently in other countries.

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Alice Herz-Sommer, Who Found Peace in Chopin Amid Holocaust, Dies at 110
By Margalit Fox / NYTimes.com

 Alice Herz-Sommer in her London apartment in 2012./ Credit Yuri Dojc
Alice Herz-Sommer in her London apartment in 2012./ Credit Yuri Dojc

Throughout her two years in Theresienstadt, through the hunger and cold and death all around her, through the loss of her mother and husband, Alice Herz-Sommer was sustained by a Polish man who had died long before. His name was Frédéric Chopin.

It was Chopin, Mrs. Herz-Sommer averred to the end of her long life, who let her and her young son survive in the camp, also known as Terezin, which the Nazis operated in what was then Czechoslovakia from 1941 until the end of the war in Europe.

Mrs. Herz-Sommer, who died in London on Sunday, February 23 at 110, and who was widely described as the oldest known Holocaust survivor, had been a distinguished pianist in Europe before the war. But it was only after the Nazi occupation of her homeland, Czechoslovakia, in 1939 that she began a deep study of Chopin’s Études, the set of 27 solo pieces that are some of the most technically demanding and emotionally impassioned works in the piano repertory.

For Mrs. Herz-Sommer, the Études offered a consuming distraction at a time of constant peril. But they ultimately gave her far more than that — far more, even, than spiritual sustenance.

Alice Herz in 1924, then a noted musician in Prague.
Alice Herz in 1924, then a noted musician in Prague.

“They are very difficult,” Mrs. Herz-Sommer told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2010. “I thought if I learned to play them, they would save my life.”

And so they did.

In recent years, because of her great age; her indomitability; her continued, ardent involvement with music (she practiced for hours each day until shortly before she died); and her recollections of her youthful friendships with titans like Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler; Mrs. Herz-Sommer became a beacon for writers, filmmakers, and members of the public eager to learn her story.

She was the subject of biographies, including “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons From the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor” (2012), by Caroline Stoessinger, who confirmed her death.

Mrs. Herz-Sommer was also profiled in documentary films, one of which, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life,” a 38-minute portrait directed by Malcolm Clarke, is a 2014 Oscar nominee for documentary short subject. The awards take place on Sunday (March 2).

What seemed to draw audiences to Mrs. Herz-Sommer above all, as Mr. Clarke’s film makes plain, was her evident lack of rancor about her wartime experience. In the books and films about her, and in a welter of newspaper and magazine interviews, she expressed her unalloyed joy in making music and, quite simply, in being alive.

She was discouraged, she said, about just one thing.

“I am by nature an optimist,” Mrs. Herz-Sommer told The Observer, the British newspaper, in 2010. “But I am pessimistic about future generations’ willingness to remember and care about what happened to the Jews of Europe, and to us in Terezin.”

Alice Herz was born in Prague on Nov. 26, 1903, one of five children of a cultured, German-speaking, secular Jewish family. Her father was a prosperous businessman; her mother moved in the city’s shimmering artistic circles and numbered Kafka and Mahler among her friends.

As a child, Alice knew both men; Kafka (“a slightly strange man,” she recalled) attended one of the family’s Passover seders.

Alice began piano lessons at 5 and at 16 embarked on conservatory studies in Prague; by the time she was an older teenager, she was giving well-received concerts throughout Europe.

In 1931 she married Leopold Sommer, a businessman and amateur violinist; the couple had a son, Stepan (also spelled Stephan), in 1937.

In 1939, with the Nazi invasion imminent, some of Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s family fled Czechoslovakia for then-Palestine. She remained in Prague to look after her frail widowed mother.

Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s mother was deported to Terezin in 1942 and from there sent to a death camp, where she was killed.

It was after Mrs. Herz-Sommer escorted her mother to the deportation center in Prague (“the lowest point of my life,” she said) that she resolved to start work on Chopin’s Études.

In 1943, Mrs. Herz-Sommer and her husband and their son were dispatched to Terezin. Part ghetto, part concentration camp, Terezin, northwest of Prague, was promoted by the Nazis as a model institution: many of its inmates had been among Czechoslovakia’s foremost figures in the performing arts.

Terezin had an orchestra, drawn from their ranks, whose members quite literally played for time before audiences of prisoners and their Nazi guards. Mrs. Herz-Sommer, playing the camp’s broken, out-of-tune piano, joined them.

“It was propaganda,” she later said. “We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year.”

But for Mrs. Herz-Sommer, who played more than 100 concerts in Terezin, the sustaining power of music was no less real.

“These concerts, the people are sitting there — old people, desolated and ill — and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food,” she later said. “Through making music, we were kept alive.”

Terezin was a transit camp. From there, Jews were deported to forced-labor and death camps; of some 140,000 Jews who passed through Terezin, nearly 90,000 were deported to “almost certain death” at such camps, according to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 33,000 died in Terezin itself.

One of the prisoners transported from Terezin was Leopold Sommer, who in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz, and on to Dachau. He died there, probably of typhus, in 1945, a month before liberation.

Music spared Mrs. Herz-Sommer a similar fate. One night after she had been in Terezin for more than a year, she was stopped by a young Nazi officer, as Ms. Stoessinger’s book recounts.

“Do not be afraid,” he said. “I only want to thank you for your concerts. They have meant much to me.”

He turned to leave before adding: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.”

After the war, Mrs. Herz-Sommer returned with Stepan to Prague but found its open anti-Semitism intolerable. In 1949, they emigrated to Israel, where she taught for many years at the Rubin Academy of Music, now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

In the mid-1980s, she moved to London, where her son, an eminent cellist known since their time in Israel as Raphael Sommer, had made his career.

After her son died of an aneurysm in 2001, at 64, music once again sustained her. Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s neighbors in her London apartment building, where she occupied Flat No. 6, knew she had weathered the blow when they heard her practicing once more.

Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s survivors include two grandchildren.

She was the subject of a BBC television documentary, “Alice Sommer Herz at 106: Everything Is a Present,” and another biography, “A Garden of Eden in Hell” (2007; later reissued as “Alice’s Piano”), by Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki.

A few years ago, after advancing age had immobilized one finger on each hand, Mrs. Herz-Sommer reworked her technique so she could play with eight fingers.

But though her hands were failing, her musical acumen remained sharp. In November, on Mrs. Herz-Sommer’s 110th birthday, Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, wrote in the magazine’s culture blog of having called on her in London the year before.

Because Mrs. Herz-Sommer could find journalists wearying, Mr. Ross, at the urging of her biographer Ms. Stoessinger, presented himself as a musician.

“Play something,” Mrs. Herz-Sommer commanded him.

Mr. Ross, at her piano, gamely made his way through some Schubert before Mrs. Herz-Sommer stopped him.

“Now,” she said, “tell me your real profession.”


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