Happy Fingers: An Oscar Winner

The Legacy of Holocaust Survivor and Pianist Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice Herz-Sommer. Image from The Lady in Number 6.
After playing the piano for an entire century, Alice Herz-Sommer’s fingers still skipped with joyful agility through a Bach invention. The Academy Award-winning short documentary The Lady in Number 6 tells her story as the oldest living Holocaust survivor—that is, until she passed away last month at the age of 110—who also seemed to be the happiest person in the world, constantly speaking in positive statements, even when discussing her traumatic past.

“Even the bad is beautiful,” Alice insists in the film, as we learn of her career as a concert pianist being interrupted when the Nazis rolled into Prague. Under Nazi rule, she was stripped of her freedom, her family members, and her grand piano (Alice illegally hid a piccolo piano so she could keep playing anyway).

She was eventually sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp that actually focused on the performing arts, so that although tens of thousands would die there, the rest of the world could see propaganda footage of the favorable conditions the prisoners were supposedly living under. But her performances—for example, playing all of Chopin’s Etudes from memory—at the camp also served as moral support for prisoners, including herself: as she put it, “When we can play, it can’t be so terrible.”

As pianists, as musicians, no matter what we go through in life, we will always have the music deep inside of us.

It’s the portrayal of this bittersweet experience of doing what she loved while imprisoned—being valued for one part of her identity while being oppressed and dehumanized for another—that makes The Lady in Number 6 different from other Holocaust stories, as it brings to light another side of the horrific events.

Beyond its educational value, the film reminds us that as pianists, as musicians, no matter what we go through in life, we will always have the music deep inside of us. In Alice’s words, “We should thank Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, to Schubert, to Schumann. . . . They gave us indescribable beauty. They made us happy.”

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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