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The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

It probably doesn't matter that Alice Herz Sommer didn't live to see the Academy Award ceremony that took place on Sunday, March 7, 2014. Sommer, who died on February 23, 2014, at the age of 110, was a classical pianist and the world's oldest survivor of the Shoah. She is also the subject of The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, which received an Oscar® for Best Documentary Short.

"My world is music, I'm not interested in anything else," she announces early in the film, her eyes gleaming with joy. And it is music about which she speaks most enthusiastically during the 38-minute film. When director Malcolm Clarke was filming almost two years ago, she still practiced every day. Judging from the footage of her at the keyboard, she might not have been able to return to the concert stage, but she still played better than any amateur.

Her pianistic skills were a key to her survival. She was already an established concert artist when the Nazis invaded her native Czechoslovakia. She was 39 when she and her son Raphael were sent to Terezin, and in that uniquely peculiar "model" concentration camp she gave over 100 concerts that included a complete cycle of the Chopin études, played from memory. Even the guards would stop to listen to her practicing, she recalls in the film.

She and her son were among the lucky few at Terezin to have survived the war. Of the approximately 144,000 Jews who were held there, fewer than 18,000 remained when the notorious camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945. The rest had been transported to the death camps or had died in Terezin.

Despite the experience of life under the Nuremberg Laws in occupied Prague and the horrific conditions she endured in Terezin, Sommer emerges from the film as an upbeat, even joyous presence. That mindset, she asserts, is the direct result of her immersion in music.

"Music is God," she tells the filmmakers. "In difficult times, you feel it even when you are suffering."

Given the moral nihilism at the center of the alternate universe the Nazis created, many scholars and critics dismiss the idea of "cultural resistance" as meaningless. My own inclination is to agree. And yet, it is hard to dismiss the testimony of Sommer and her two closest friends, actress Zdenka Fantlova and cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who share Sommer's belief that the efforts of the beleaguered prisoners who were cultural workers at Terezin may have had a positive impact on the lives of those who heard and saw them.

A survivor of Bergen-Belsen, Fantlova says of the many concerts she heard in Terezin, "It was moral support, not entertainment."

Lasker-Wallfisch's experience and outlook are darker. She was a member of the women's orchestra in Auschwitz and it was her musical training that kept her out of the gas chambers as a result. She recalls playing Schubert's "Traumerei" at the request of Josef Mengele and concludes, "The more one remembers ... the more macabre the entire experience seems."

Tellingly, Sommer only becomes vexed once in the film, when she recounts visits from German journalists who tell her it would be understandable if she hated them. For once, she is stern, barking "Hatred? Hatred brings only hatred."

Though Sommer didn't live to see the Academy Awards, she has collected her prizes already.

George Robinson is the author of Essential Judaism and Essential Torah, and the film and music critic for The Jewish Week. A frequent speaker at Jewish film festivals, JCCs and synagogues, he can be reached by email.