Alice Herz-Sommer was 39 years old when she arrived at Theresienstadt, a ghetto and model concentration camp located in Czechoslovakia. The camp was used by the Nazis as an elaborate ruse to show the world how well they were treating Europe’s Jews. As part of the deception, Jewish artists were encouraged to perform plays, concerts and hold other cultural events. Alice was a pianist.
Until her death last month at the age of 110, Alice was the oldest living Holocaust survivor. She lived alone in an apartment in London, England. To her neighbors she was known as “The Lady in Number 6”, and that moniker became the title on the short documentary film made about her life. One week after her death, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary: Short Subject.
The documentary, which runs 38 minutes, is directed by Malcolm Clarke and produced by Nicholas Reed. Clarke spoke to Entertainment Weekly about making the film. “The thing that really convinced me in a nanosecond that I had to make this film was she didn’t carry any enmity, no pain, no tragedy. And it’s not that she hasn’t experienced these things, but she processed them so much differently to everyone else that I met.”
Alice is described as the perennial optimist, and that attitude shines through in the film. Upon arrival at Theresienstadt, she mused, “If they have an orchestra in Terezin [the Czech name for the town], how bad can it be?” Although her mother and husband perished there, Alice’s positivity carried her and her son Raphael (Rafi) through the war.
Alice was born in Prague on November 26, 1903 and trained as a pianist from a young age. During her time in Theresienstadt, she gave over 100 concerts, playing all of Chopin’s Etudes from memory. Four years after the liberation, Alice and Rafi came to Israel, where Alice taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir, and Rafi became a concert cellist.
Rafi later moved to England, and Alice followed her only child there. Unfortunately, Rafi passed away at the age of 65, but Alice remained in London. She still has family there.
The documentary was shot over a two year period. Clarke acknowledged, “We had to move very quickly. Alice was not young when I met her, I think she was 107 when I met her. Any 107 year old, even if they’re very healthy, they are clearly closer to the end of their life than the beginning of their life and so we wanted to get this woman on film while she was still healthy and sprightly and chipper.” Until the end, Alice would play piano four hours every day, to the delight of her neighbors, and loved to spend the rest of her day with visitors.
Originally, the filmmakers considered calling the documentary “Dancing Under the Gallows”, but decided that title was far too grim for the subject matter. Dubbed “one of the most inspirational and uplifting stories of the year,” the short portrays Alice as she “shares her views on how to live a long and happy life. She discusses music, laughter and how to remain optimistic come what may.”
Producer Nicholas Reed said, “Kids all over the world grow up on superheroes, what we, their parents, must remind them, is documentaries tell stories about ‘real superheroes.’ Superheroes are based on great people, real people, like Alice Herz Sommer.”