If you don’t believe that being happy is a matter of choice, I dare you to watch the Oscar-winning short documentary The Lady in Number 6.
The film, directed by Malcolm Clarke, is the uplifting story of Alice Herz-Sommer, a remarkable optimist, mother, and musician. At 109 years old, when the movie was made, she also happened to be the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor.
Alice Herz was born in Prague in 1903 to a cultured family; they counted Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka as close friends. As quite a young woman, Herz-Sommer became a celebrated concert pianist herself. (Before her career, she asked Artur Schnabel for his opinion. He told her—she remembers, smiling—“You can’t learn [anything more] with me; you can’t learn anything else.”) She married a violinist, Leopold Sommer, and in time they had a son. They were Jewish intellectuals in Czechoslovakia in 1938. Had they lived in some other place and time, Herz-Sommer’s story might have been a happy one, filled with love and music.
The miraculous thing is this: It was, anyway.
Under the German occupation, Herz-Sommer’s grand piano was confiscated, but she managed to hide a “piccolo piano” in the apartment and continued playing—at some risk, since music had been forbidden to Jews. When she was finally deported, a Nazi soldier who lived in her building thanked her earnestly for the music he had listened for every day. She understood the gift she had given the young man and saw the German soldiers as people, in many cases forced to follow orders against their neighbors.
Her mother was taken to Treblinka and her husband to Dachau. Neither survived. Herz-Sommer and her son, Raphael, who was then 6, were among the lucky ones (if you can imagine using that phrase to talk about anyone persecuted during that period). They were taken to Theresienstadt.
A “model camp,” Theresienstadt served an important—if insidious—purpose. Filled with cultural leaders, musicians, and artists, it was used to prove to the world (and specifically to the International Red Cross, which came to inspect at regular intervals) that the Jews weren’t being mistreated. The camp was an elaborate stage set, and young Raphael performed in the famous children’s opera Brundibar. You can see him in the 1944 propaganda film The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City, clips of which are shown in the documentary.
By her count, Herz-Sommer played more than 100 concerts at Theresienstadt, including all of the Chopin Études. “Music saved my life,” she says. “And music saves me still.” She points out, early in the film, “I am full of joy. When I go with this [she points to her walker] I am an invalid, but I am the only individual in this house who is laughing . . . I am happy with music. I am even happy without music. Even thinking about music makes me happy.”
Excerpt from The Lady in Number 6.
Of course, the realities of life in Theresiendstadt were not as idyllic as those the Nazi film depicted. It may have been an elaborate red herring, but it was also a “feeder camp” for Auschwitz. Much of Herz-Sommer’s energy was focused on protecting her son, physically but also emotionally.
“I knew that even in this very difficult situation, there are beautiful moments. Even the bad is beautiful when you know where to look for it.”
In the course of the documentary, we meet two of Herz-Sommer’s friends—younger women who also survived the camps. One is an actress, Zdehka Fantiova. The other, a cellist named Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, tells a chilling story about playing for Josef Mengele, the infamous “angel of death.” This practically mythic monster would stop into the music block and ask to hear Schumann’s Träumerei. “Completely ludicrous,” Wallfisch says. “God knows what he’s been doing before he came in. . . Macabre.”
The actress describes what music did for the players and the prisoner-audience. “It was moral support, rather than entertainment . . . We were transported into a different time, the time before, when we lived in a normal, civilized world, and hoping, and being convinced, that the war will soon finish and we’ll go back home . . . but the Germans knew we were sentenced to death, and thought, ‘Let them play, let them laugh; the laughter will soon vanish from their face.’”
When the Russians liberated them, Herz-Sommer and her son moved to Israel. He grew up and became a concert cellist, performing internationally and settling in the U.K. Eventually Herz-Sommer moved to northern London to be near him. In 2001, when he died suddenly at 64, she stayed on. True to her inimitable character, she found much to be thankful for, even in that great loss. “He didn’t know he was going to die. He didn’t suffer. That is a blessing.” As always, she turned to music.
“Music is a dream. Music is God,” she explains. “In difficult times you feel it, especially when you are suffering.”
Herz-Sommer’s story is inspirational. But it’s important to remember that for most of the Jews exterminated during the Holocaust, playing in an orchestra wasn’t an option. It may seem incredible that Herz-Sommer considers herself blessed after what she survived. Indeed, the very fact that she was able to survive is a blessing in itself. But millions of others were not so fortunate.
There are people who take issue with Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Life is Beautiful for this same reason. To find any joy in such atrocity feels disrespectful to those who lost their lives. To imply any sort of happy ending feels like a betrayal. How can any sane person find light or humor or music when he or she is living in hell?
Yet that’s precisely the lesson Herz-Sommer teaches us in this quiet 38-minute film. It’s possible to feel great joy and great sorrow at the same time. And it’s possible—she might argue necessary—to choose happiness.
Herz-Sommer notes that when German journalists come to interview her, “they ask, ‘Are we allowed to enter your room? Don’t you hate us?’ She replies, “I never hate. Hatred only brings hatred.”
She muses, “I think I am in my last days, but it doesn’t really matter because I have had such a beautiful life. And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love.”
Herz-Sommer was 110 when she died, passing away on February 23, a mere week before her story was honored with an Academy Award.
The film’s message is very clear. Listen for the music. Look for the beautiful. Choose happiness. Herz-Sommer experienced hatred beyond our imagining, but chose to forgive and to love.
The Lady in Number 6 is a small film with a big heart.
You can order and watch The Lady in Number 6 on www.vimeo.com. It will also be available on Netflix starting April 1.