During her lifespan of 110 years, Alice Herz-Sommer has been an accomplished concert pianist, teacher, prisoner in Theresienstadt, wife and mother, and now she is the star of an Oscar-nominated documentary.
Even more remarkable has been her indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality in the face of all the upheavals and horrors the 20th century could throw at her.
The 38-minute documentary, “The Lady in No. 6: Music Saved My Life,” opens in Prague, where Alice – everyone, from presidents on down calls her Alice – first saw the light of day on Nov. 26, 1903. She was born into an upper-class Jewish family, steeped in literature and classical music.
A friend and frequent visitor was “Uncle Franz,” last name Kafka, as well as composer Gustav Mahler and other luminaries.
Trained as a pianist from childhood on, 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.
Everything changed in 1939, when Hitler, tearing up the 1938 Munich accord, marched his troops into Prague, and with them all his anti-Semitic prohibitions. Alice’s public concert career was over, but the family managed to hang on, living an increasingly restrictive existence in Prague.
In 1943, Alice, her mother, husband and six-year old son Raphael (Rafi) 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, it was typical, not only of Alice but most European Jews, that she took her deportation with relative equanimity. “If they have an orchestra in Terezin (the Czech name of the town), how bad can it be?” she recalled herself saying.
Alice soon found out, as both her mother and husband perished in the “model ghetto.” Alice, as in so many other times in her life, 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 her son, Rafi, trying to make his life bearable, to escape the constant hunger and to 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 “Lady in No. 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 first to Prague, then in 1949 emigrated to Israel, where she taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir. 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.
Almost 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 using “Dancing Under the Gallows” as the film’s title, but then changed it to “The Lady in No. 6.”
It was a wise decision, for the film is anything but a grim Holocaust documentary. It is dominated by Alice’s unfailing affirmation of life, usually accompanied by gusts of laughter. However, her health and speech have declined in recent months, and she doesn’t give any more interviews.
But in a brief phone conversation, conducted mainly in German, she 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. “Mmusic is my life; music is god,”
At 104, Alice took up the study of philosophy and likes to quote the saying by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “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 naiveté.
A very small sampling of her sayings includes: “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 these 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” (Spiegel and Grau, a Random House imprint), which forms the basis for the film and her on-screen interviews.
Stoessinger, a New York concern pianist, interviewed Alice and her friends over a period of 15 years, and she 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. Clarke 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.
Producer 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.”
Asked about the film’s budget, Reed responded, “About 35 cents, a bus token and bits of old chewing gum.”
Both Clarke and Reed are British-born Canadians. Neither is traditionally Jewish, but, as Reed put it, “I am not a Jew, but I’m Jewish.”
“The Lady in No. 6” open Feb. 14 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles for a one-week run, together with the four other nominated short documentaries.