Documentary Short on Oldest Holocaust Survivor, Pianist Wins Oscar

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The Lady in Number 6," a 38-minute-long film portrait of Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest classical pianist and Holocaust survivor, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short on Sunday in Hollywood.

The award, which had been widely expected, came one week after the accomplished Chopin pianist died at age 110. 

The film, directed by Malcolm Clarke, tells the extraordinary story of Herz-Sommer, her husband and her son, who were sent from their native Prague in 1943 to a concentration camp in the Czech city of Terezin. Known as a "model" concentration camp, inmates there were allowed to stage concerts, and she managed to survive because of music-loving German officers’ admiration for her piano playing. Herz-Sommer and her son were among fewer than 20,000 who were freed when the notorious camp was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945 (her mother and her husband died in Auschwitz).

Herz-Sommer had a significant musical upbringing: she was a piano student of Artur Schnabel and her mother was a friend of Gustav Mahler. After the war, Herz-Sommer settled in Israel, teaching at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, and in 1986 she moved to London, where she continued to practice the piano for hours each day until near the end of her life. Herz-Sommer recalls in the film that while in Terezín, she played more than 100 concerts, including the complete Chopin etudes from memory. "Music was our food. Through making music we were kept alive," she once recalled.

For more on Herz-Sommer's life, see Alex Ross's profile in the New Yorker, Anastasia Tsioulcas's feature on NPR Music and Margalit Fox's obituary in the New York Times.