“Calmness is strength”
Despite starting with a smile watching 109-year old Alice Herz Sommer playing classical music on her piano, we know there will be more to The Lady In Number 6 than simply learning how beloved she is to those in her building woken at 10am to the sounds of Chopin and Bach. It’s in her age, face, and Czech accent where thoughts of WWII and the Nazis conjure our wonder as to when the tragic circumstances of her freedom will be introduced. But somehow her telling it doesn’t seem as tragic as we know it was. Her unwavering optimism—the attitude that helped her become the oldest living Holocaust survivor today—spins the experience as one that gave purpose to her life. It taught her how hatred only breeds hatred so we might as well love instead.
Malcolm Clarke’s documentary short (co-written by Carl Freed) takes us along the trajectory of this woman’s life from birth in Prague to the luminary family friends that populated her childhood like Franz Kafka to her love of the piano, her husband, and their son Raphael. Then March 15, 1939 arrives with Nazi tanks driving down the street to turn her family and every other Jewish household into second-class citizens to be arrested, silenced, and ultimately killed. Her friend Zdenka Fantlova talks about that morning against archival photos and footage, herself an actress taken to Theresienstadt alongside Alice and many other “celebrity intellectuals” in order to document their art as the “average concentration camp experience” for international consumption. It was a place where music became more than simple entertainment—it became life itself.
Add their other friend Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and you have a trio of aged survivors explaining what it was like to live with hope inside a place without. Alice performed to keep herself and her son smiling yet found her Chopin also enraptured the guards caught standing outside the concert hall’s windows. Anita played cello in the symphony at Auschwitz—fully aware her talent saved her life—while Zdenka survived death despite the hundreds of corpses surrounding her because she refused to label herself a victim. Their stories are heroic, uplifting, and rivetingly inspiring considering they find themselves able to voice the choked up words “I’m grateful for that experience”, but it’s difficult to see their trajectories without that of so many others who didn’t have it so lucky.
I hate saying their experience was easier since it was still unconscionable, but it kind of was. These women had the kind of talent Nazis held in high esteem to be manipulated to their means. The film glosses over Alice’s husband being killed in another camp as well as their parents being taken and never seen again. Yes, it’s amazing they’re able to tell their tale with full hearts and complete knowledge of life’s preciousness, but I couldn’t help noticing the film’s incongruous rosy-colored sheen. Anita playing cello for the Angel of Death (Josef Mengele) is an intriguing tidbit, but it’s nothing compared to someone saved by Allied troops minutes before entering the gas chamber. The Lady In Number 6 tells a great story of three talented ladies, but a lot is left unspoken to do so.