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Thursday, February 20, 2014

 The Indomitable Human Spirit

"I only sat with her for an hour, an hour and a half -- we had a cup of tea together -- and at the end of that meeting, I realized that ... we should do it because she was so remarkable and her story was much bigger than just being a Holocaust story.
"I don't think of this film as a Holocaust film at all."
Malcolm Clarke, film Director
Mr. Clarke is a Montreal based director of documentaries. He is also the recipient of an Oscar, for one of his previous films that won the best documentary short category in 1989 for You Don't Have to Die. That film chronicled the life of a child with cancer who, while busy with his own life-and-death battle became an inspiration for other young children with the disease.

And Mr. Clarke has been nominated once again for an Oscar. This time for the inspiring documentary The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved my Life. This time his subject is an old, a very old woman. She is a Holocaust survivor, living in London. Her name is Alice Herz-Sommer, and she is 110 years of age. She is also a pianist, was once a concert pianist. And at the ripe old age of one hundred, ten years, she still plays piano.

Alice Herz-Sommer, World's Oldest Pianist (and Holocaust Survivor), Turns 110
Ms. Herz-Sommer has lived in London's Belsize Park since 1986, where she receives daily visits from her closest friends, her grandson Ariel Sommer and daughter-in-law Genevieve Sommer. (Photo : The Times/Richard Pohle) 

She is also bright-eyed and enthusiastic, and lives in her own tiny apartment. In the film she is described as the world's oldest living pianist. And just incidentally, the world's oldest Holocaust survivor. She says in the film that her optimism, a natural characteristic of her temperament, and her love of music has kept her alive as long as that incredible number of years, despite the dread adversity of her earlier experiences.

Skilled musicians were in demand in the death camps. Alice Herz-Sommer was interned with her young son at Theresienstadt, paired with the Auschwitz death camp. Jewish musicians were a special category in those camps, valued for their talents and exhorted by their Nazi jailers to provide entertainment for the camp inmates. They would also be on hand when new transports arrived, to greet them with the music they played.

A reassurance to new arrivals that all would be well, that this was meant to be a temporary passage, not an end to life. After all, if anything diabolical were to be planned, would there be exquisite music to greet and entertain them? Music was meant as an extension of life, if not for most inmates, then certainly for those talented Jews for whom music was as integral as breathing. As it was for Alice Herz-Sommer.

Alice Herz-Sommer
BIRTHDAY GIRL: Alice Herz-Sommer pictured on her last birthday.
"Music saved my life and music saves me still", is one of her comments to be heard in the film. Music, she emphasizes, helped her to survive the darkest moments. "She says in the film there's beauty even in the bad things in life, you just have to know where to look for it", Frederic Bohbot, founder of Montreal's Bunbury Films, explained.

The Lady in Number 6, Malcolm Clarke says, represents above all, the indomitability of the human spirit.
Alice Herz-Sommer, the 'Lady in No 6' (photo credit: courtesy)
Alice Herz-Sommer, the 'Lady in No 6' (photo credit: courtesy)

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