“So the people who were sitting in the audience, we were transported to a different time…the time before, when we lived in a normal civil life, civilized well, and hoping and being convinced that the war will soon finish and we will go back home and it will go on. But of course, what we knew later, the Germans knew full well, that we are sentenced to death, and thought…let them play…let them laugh. The laughter will soon vanish from their face…and we were dancing under the gallows.” – Zdenka Fantlova
Though I tend to be a pretty emotional human (I’m a high F on the Myers Briggs!), my intellectual disposition and many years of education tend to make it rare for a piece of art or literature to truly capture me, to break through my defenses –I’ve been trained to be too critical, perhaps even too elitist… I can appreciate a great deal of art and literature and music, but the things that split me open, that stir my soul, are far and few between: Picasso’s paintings, Andrea Gibson’s poetry, J.A. Nicholls’ collage art, Sigur Ros’ and Florence + the Machine’s music…
Last night, I saw a movie that I would add to that short list: “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.” The Oscar-nominated documentary short—a mere 38 minutes in length—tells the story of Alice Herz Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor (she’s currently 109 years old!). Alice is an accomplished concert pianist, whose husband died at Auschwitz, while she and her son were sent to the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. Here’s the preview for the short:
I have little to actually say about the documentary, other than that people should watch it, as I think it speaks beautifully for itself (and hence why this is a PSA as opposed to a reflection or something), not to mention that it strikes me as futile to attempt to capture her spirit with words—while words like “authentic” or “real” typically make me balk, there is something about her presence that feels like those things…that feels very… genuine. Which is what makes the film, and her, so utterly remarkable to me—the optimism and joy and love she has in spite of her suffering… a joy that she actually in part attributes to her suffering. At one point, she notes “Sometimes it happens that I am thankful to have been there [in the concentration camp], because this gave me a…I’m richer than other people.”
Alice’s friend and fellow Holocaust survivor, Zdenka (quoted in the epigraph above), echoes Alice’s sentiment. She explains:
I never felt like a victim. I felt more like an observer. I felt, it has nothing to do with me, I just happen to be here. I have to take it as it comes. Survival is a very complex matter. You don’t learn it, it comes to you spontaneously. When you were really down, in the hell, and come up again, you have learned what matters in life and what doesn’t. And what matters is very few things. Life matters, and human relationships. And that’s about it. the rest is not important…And because of this, it has enriched my life, and I’m grateful, for the experience. I can say that.
Alice contributes her sense of optimism, her hope and recognition of the beauty of the world, to music, as the title of the documentary notes. “We should thank Bach, and Beethoven, and Schubert,” she exhorts, trailing off with the names of more composers. “They gave us beauty, they gave us indescribable beauty. They made us love.”
And love is something Alice seems to do pretty damn well: Finding things to love even in the camps– “There were beautiful moments there [in the concentration camp]. I knew that even in very difficult situations, there are beautiful moments. …even the bad is beautiful, I would say. Even the bad is beautiful, when you know where to look for it. It has to be;” loving life–“I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times – including my husband, my mother and my beloved son. Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate;” and even loving the very people who caused her suffering–“A lot of German authorities come and want to learn, want to speak with me… before they enter my room, they ask, are we allowed to enter your room? Do you not hate us? So my answer is, I never hate. Hatred breeds only hatred.”
I tend to be a pretty skeptical person– cynical probably more often than I should be– and definitely tend to lean more towards melancholy and angst than towards optimism. While I am admittedly a pretty hopeful person, I usually need a healthy dose of cynicism to keep that hope intact, and often dismiss said “optimism” and “love towards enemies” as all too often banal and fake and cliche (as Kathleen Hannah of Le Tigre puts it in her endorsement of Anne Cvetkovich’s brilliant book An Archive of Feelings, it’s difficult to “avoid bullshit moralism and sentimentality”), and ultimately unhelpful. But Alice’s life and story, at least for me, performs a sort of optimism sans moralism, a beauty without bullshit–a sort of embodiment and performance in her being of the music that she finds so beautiful .
This PSA, however, ostensibly fails at avoiding said clichéd sentimentalism. Which means you shouldn’t take my word for it, and should just watch it for yourselves!