Montreal director Malcolm Clarke thought that some people might consider Alice Herz-Sommer controversial for being “thankful” – her word – for a very long life that included living through the Holocaust.
Clarke’s remarkable, Oscar-nominated documentary short, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, reveals Herz-Sommer, now 110 and the world’s oldest known Holocaust survivor, to be a person who never let the Holocaust dampen her optimistic spirit and who survived her ordeal through her love of music.
The British-born Clarke, a non-Jew who has lived in Quebec since the mid-1990s, told The CJN he was “quite shocked” when he first heard Herz-Sommer express gratitude for everything she’s lived through.
But filming her in her small London apartment “Number 6,” accompanied by Montreal producer Frederic Bohbot and a film crew, he realized that despite her positive attitude toward life, she understood Nazi evil all too well.
Clarke told The CJN that while she appreciated that there may have been Nazis who loved Beethoven, Herz-Sommer “held no illusions about the horrors that took place.” She felt that such love “would not redeem what they did one bit.”
Clarke spoke briefly with The CJN after the Jan. 27 screening of his 38-minute film, which was followed by a panel discussion organized by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Panellists included psychologist Henry Greenspan and survivors Rena Schondorf, Ted Bolgar and Jean Kutscher.
Clarke, an Oscar winner for a previous short documentary, You Don’t Have to Die (1989), and for the feature-length documentary Prisoner of Paradise (2002), which was also Holocaust-themed, described to the MHMC audience how he “gussied up” more than 12 hours of interview footage of Herz-Sommer, taken over a four-day period, with archival material, to construct The Lady in Number 6.
He said the film took about a year and a half to complete and premiered in London three months ago.
Filming was the easy part, Clarke said, given Herz-Sommer’s irrepressible nature and readiness to speak about anything and everything – particularly her love of music.
“All we had to do was stand to one side,” he said.
Clarke confessed that he was initially reluctant to make another Holocaust-related film after Prisoner of Paradise, which was about a Jewish cabaret artist who performed in the Nazis’ “show camp” Theresienstadt, and had required Clarke to pore over archival material for countless hours.
But once he met Herz-Sommer during a stop-off in London a few years ago, he realized her story had to be told.
“I knew I had been hooked.”
As in Prisoner of Paradise, Theresienstadt plays a central role in The Lady in Number 6. It’s where the Prague-born Herz-Sommer – then a 39-year-old accomplished concert pianist from a home frequented by Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler – was taken in 1943 with her husband, Leopold, and young son, Raphael. Her husband would later die in another camp, while her son died years after the war at age 64.
In the concentration camp, as Herz-Sommer says in the film, she managed to perform 100 concerts, including all of the Chopin Études.
Even some Nazi soldiers would listen in. It was not for the “entertainment,” she explains, “but as moral support” for the internees, most of whom would eventually be deported to the Auschwitz death camp.
Despite the hardships in the camp, music was Herz-Sommer’s salvation – “my God,” as she puts it – keeping her spirit unbowed. In the film, she utters the word “music” many times, as if it were a mantra.
Clarke said even though he never saw an “irritable” side of her, Herz-Sommer doesn’t view her past “through rose-tinted glasses.”
Yet, despite the evil she witnessed and endured, she never lost the capacity to see the humanity of individual Germans.
“She is just one of those odd people who refuses to allow experience to grind her down,” Clarke said.
In the film, she is seen practising pieces by Bach and other composers on her apartment piano, her fingers slowed a bit, but her technique intact.
While Herz-Sommer has “slowed down” a little since the film was made, Clarke said she still lives alone, plays Scrabble with friends, and practises piano every day.
Producer Nicholas Reed is also up for an Oscar along with Clarke.