Oldest Holocaust survivor at center of Oscar-nominated doc

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 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 on March 2, begins in her native Prague.

Alice Herz-Sommer, on her 107th birthday photo/polly hancock

She 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, Herz-Sommer made her concert debut as a teenager. She married, had a son and seemed destined for a pleasant, cultured, prosperous life.

But everything changed in 1939 when Hitler, casually tearing up the 1938 Munich Agreement between Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy, 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, Herz-Sommer and her mother, husband, and 6-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, Herz-Sommer took her deportation with relative equanimity, as was typical of 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.

She soon found out, as her mother and husband perished there. Herz-Sommer 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 documentary. “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, Herz-Sommer and her son 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.

Herz-Sommer 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 he died at 65, but she 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 Herz-Sommer played four hours each day — to her neighbors’ enjoyment.

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 documentary is anything but a grim Holocaust story. Rather, it illustrates Herz-Sommers’ unfailing affirmation of life.

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, Herz-Sommer 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. “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.”

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 Herz-Sommer and her friends over a period of 15 years and became an ardent admirer. “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 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, was reluctant to take on the new assignment, as was Clarke. Both are Canadians; neither is Jewish. The film’s executive producer, Phillip B. Goldfine, lives in Los Angeles and grew up in San Leandro.

 Reed said,“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.”

“The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” is one of five Oscar-nominated documentary short films playing at the Opera Plaza in S.F.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent