At 110, holocaust survivor finds sustenance in music

During her lifespan of 110 years, Alice Herz-Sommer has been an accomplished concert pianist, teacher, prisoner in Theresienstadt, wife and mother, and now she is the star of an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Even more remarkable has been her indomitable optimism, cheerfulness and vitality in the face of all the upheavals and horrors the 20th century could throw at her.

The 38-minute documentary, “The Lady in No. 6: Music Saved My Life,” opens in Prague, where Alice – everyone, from presidents on down calls her Alice – first saw the light of day on Nov. 26, 1903. She was born into an upper-class Jewish family, steeped in literature and classical music.

A friend and frequent visitor was “Uncle Franz,” last name Kafka, as well as composer Gustav Mahler and other luminaries.

Trained as a pianist from childhood on, Alice made her concert debut as a teenager, married, had a son and seemed destined for the pleasant, cultured life of a prosperous Middle European.

Everything changed in 1939, when Hitler, tearing up the 1938 Munich accord, marched his troops into Prague, and with them all his anti-Semitic prohibitions. Alice’s public concert career was over, but the family managed to hang on, living an increasingly restrictive existence in Prague.

In 1943, Alice, her mother, husband and six-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, it was typical, not only of Alice but most European Jews, that she took her deportation with relative equanimity. “If they have an orchestra in Terezin (the Czech name of the town), how bad can it be?” she recalled herself saying.

Alice soon found out, as both her mother and husband perished in the “model ghetto.” Alice, as in so many other times in her life, 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 her son, Rafi, trying to make his life bearable, to escape the constant hunger and to 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 “Lady in No. 6.” “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, Alice and Rafi returned first to Prague, then in 1949 emigrated to Israel, where she taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and performed in concerts frequently attended by Golda Meir. Rafi became a concert cellist.

Alice 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, Rafi died at 65, but the mother remained in her small flat, No. 6, in a North London apartment house.

Almost all of the film was shot over a two-year period inside the flat, dominated by an old Steinway piano on which Alice played four hours each day, to the enjoyment of her neighbors.

Originally, the filmmakers considered using “Dancing Under the Gallows” as the film’s title, but then changed it to “The Lady in No. 6.”

It was a wise decision, for the film is anything but a grim Holocaust documentary. It is dominated by Alice’s unfailing affirmation of life, usually accompanied by gusts of laughter. However, her health and speech have declined in recent months, and she doesn’t give any more interviews.

But in a brief phone conversation, conducted mainly in German, she 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. “Mmusic is my life; music is god,”

At 104, Alice took up the study of philosophy and likes to quote the saying by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “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 naiveté.

A very small sampling of her sayings includes: “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,” and “A sense of humor keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.”

Many of these 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” (Spiegel and Grau, a Random House imprint), which forms the basis for the film and her on-screen interviews.

Stoessinger, a New York concern pianist, interviewed Alice and her friends over a period of 15 years, and she became an ardent admirer of her subject.

“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 also convinced Clarke to direct the film. Clarke 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.

Producer Reed, like Clarke, was reluctant to take on the new assignment. “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.”

Both Clarke and Reed are British-born Canadians. Neither is traditionally Jewish, but, as Reed put it, “I am not a Jew, but I’m Jewish.”


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“The Lady in No. 6” open Feb. 14 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles for a one-week run, together with the four other nominated short documentaries.

Jerusalem Becomes Queen of ‘Kingdom’

In 1986, Oscar-nominated production designer Arthur Max (“Gladiator”) visited Jerusalem in the midst of the intifada.

“People told me not to go almost everywhere, but I went everywhere,” said Max, who is Jewish. “Of course, some of the Old City was closed off for security reasons, but I went to the Western Wall and into the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And I stood on top of the Jaffa Gate and I looked out over what to me always had been a name, and suddenly I felt connected to my heritage, a close connection to all the Jewish history I had studied as a bar mitzvah.

Max drew on those feelings to recreate medieval Jerusalem for “Kingdom of Heaven,” in which the protagonists also journey to Jerusalem to connect to their religious roots. The Ridley Scott film revolves around a crusader (Orlando Bloom) swept up in the 12th-century battle between Christian King Balian and Muslim leader Saladin.

If Scott is known for dissecting heroes braving fierce odds in movies such as “Alien” and “Gladiator,” Max’s Jerusalem is an epic (and besieged) character in its own right. While Jews are relegated to extra roles, the city itself is stunningly depicted in detailed close-ups and otherworldly vistas.

Scott, for his part, wanted Jerusalem to appear as “the romantic, golden city,” not because of the color of its stone but because the film’s characters “saw it as a metaphor for idealism,” he told The Journal.

“The message is that for our heroes, Jerusalem is a symbolic, iconic place that represents God’s city,” Max said. “Because of my background I felt compelled to ‘get’ the city, not so much scholastically as emotionally correct.”

As he began researching his production design, Max again visited the Old City and snapped photographs from atop the perimeter walls.

“But there was too much intrusion from later periods; too much commercial and industrial clutter,” he said.

For inspiration, he instead turned to 19th-century romantic painters, such as David Roberts, who had depicted the city using dramatic lighting and visual exaggeration. An 1853 work by the German artist Auguste Loeffler became a key image for the film: “It’s a wide view of distant Jerusalem under stormy skies but with sunlight breaking through,” he said. “You see these whitewashed and golden walls of the city gleaming in the light, but all around the landscape is forbidding. And I showed this painting to Ridley and he said, ‘That’s it, the golden city on the hill under siege, threatened by all the dark forces around it.'”

To recreate this romanticized Jerusalem, Scott agreed the real city wouldn’t do — not just because of the commercial clutter but because of the congestion and the political unrest. Instead, he decided to build his set outside the Moroccan town of Ouarzazate, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, an area in which he had shot segments of “Gladiator.” He and Max spent days bouncing around the desert in an SUV until they discovered a wide plain upon which they could construct “Kingdom’s” centerpiece set: the exterior of Jerusalem.

Over five months in 2003, Max and his 350-person crew molded 6,000 tons of plaster into more than 28,000 square meters of wall on the arid plateau.

“We modeled our physical set on the oldest military structures of Jerusalem, such as those located in the Citadel, also known as the Tower of David,” he said. “But while we built large sections of walls and ramparts, with computers we digitally added the rest of the city, based on scanned images of ancient ruins, iconic Jerusalem structures such as the Dome of the Rock — all inspired by the 19th century painters.”

Max, 59, led his multinational crew with ease, in part because of his own diverse background. Speaking precisely in an accent that is half-American, half-British in a phone interview, he said his Sephardic family fled Spain during the Inquisition, spent centuries in Belarus, and eventually landed in New York, where Max grew up in a Reform family but was bar mitzvahed in an Orthodox synagogue. Since then he has lived in Rome and London, and calls himself a “Wandering Jew.”

On the set, he regaled his crew with tales, remembered from his childhood religious studies, of how Jerusalem had been conquered and reconquered since the destruction of the First Temple.

In contemporary Jerusalem, the conflict continues, prompting Max and Scott to draw parallels between the film and current events.

“It’s like we keep replaying history,” Scott said. “The holy wars are the fundamental basis of Jerusalem today.”

“Kingdom” itself has been under siege from various factions. Scott received death threats from extremist Islamic groups while on location in Morocco; Christian conservatives in the United States will reportedly protest the film, which they feel depicts crusaders as less than chivalrous, and some Jews will dislike one character’s observation that in Jerusalem, “no one has claim and all have claim.” (Scott, too, feels “the city should be shared, not belonging to one country or another.”)

Max, for his part, believes the movie does not take sides.

“Surely the film is a plea for tolerance, and against extremism of all kinds,” he said.

“Kingdom of Heaven” opens today in Los Angeles.

Nash Denies Anti-Semitism

John Forbes Nash, the brilliant mathematician whose life is portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie, "A Beautiful Mind," has denied allegations that he hates Jews, during a March 17 interview with Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes."

"Everyone with whom I have talked to who knows John, everyone says ‘no, he didn’t feel that way about Jews at all,’" Wallace said.

Nash’s wife, Alicia, who has known her husband for more than 50 years, agreed that, "I never heard him say anything like that."

As the bitterly contested Oscar race enters the home stretch, with winners to be announced March 24, the allegations of Nash’s anti-Semitism and homosexual liaisons — the latter also denied — have become a cause celebré in Hollywood. Among those who have rushed to the defense of Nash and the movie’s integrity has been New York Times reporter and Columbia University journalism teacher Sylvia Nasar, author of the Nash biography, who noted that Nash’s most ardent champions have been Israeli and Jewish American mathematicians.