Based on an overlooked part of World War II history, Exile Music tells the story of a family of Jewish Viennese musicians who flee the Nazis in 1939 to find refuge in the mountains of Bolivia. There, they are confronted with altitude sickness, new languages, new cultures, and eventually, some of the Nazis they sought to escape. While young Orly and her father use music to weave together their past and present lives, Orly’s mother abandons singing. She grows increasingly distant, harboring a secret that could put their entire family at risk again. When unexpected visitors arrive in their new homeland, they force Orly to choose where she ultimately belongs. Between 10,000 and 20,000 Jewish refugees found their way to Bolivia during the war years, many of them artists and musicians. Very little has been written about this community. Jennifer Steil lived in Bolivia for four years, meeting some remaining survivors and their descendants. Their stories inspired her book.
September 1, 2019
- As children, Anneliese and Orly imagine a complex and ever-evolving fantasy world that they inhabit together. How does the intensity of their games distract them from the changes happening in their world? How does their play help them digest or adapt to the growing menace around them?
- Before reading Exile Music, did you know that some 20,000 Jewish refugees fled to Bolivia during World War II ? Many Jewish citizens sought refuge in South American countries, yet those experiences aren’t as prominent in our history books as the experiences of refugees who escaped to North America, Scandinavia, or survived hidden in European countries. Why do you think these experiences aren’t as commonly discussed? Why has no other novel in English addressed this particular population of refugees?
- Many chapters begin with an epigraph that acts that as sort of news flash. Why do you think Steil decided to include these historical headlines? What purpose do they serve in the narrative?
- Music is, from the beginning of the novel, a means by which Orly understands her world. (The book itself is structured in six movements, mirroring Mahler’s Third Symphony). Her parents’ work as musicians defines how she understands Vienna, and the music of Bolivia — the way her father engages with his students there, her mother continues to keep music out of her life, and Miguel shows her the sounds of his country — shapes the way that Bolivia becomes home. How does music serve as a bridge between the old and new worlds of these characters? How does each character uniquely use music to cope with their surroundings? What other elements of Orly’s life give her the sensation of home? What activity or ritual has for you acted as a lens through which you understand your life?
- In moments of stress or frustration, Orly often takes two seemingly unconnected things — places, people, or experiences — and figures out a path that connects them. How does that act of defining connection help Orly? How does the book itself act as a path connecting two seemingly unconnected places?
- Jennifer Steil is the wife of an ambassador, and has lived in many different places around the world, including Bolivia. As a mother, in each new place her family moves it is imperative that Steil find a way to acclimate, and that often means learning a new language, making new friends, adapting to new foods and ways of shopping, and learning the cadences of daily life in a new place. How does her experience as an outsider making home in a new place influence the way she wrote this book? How do you think the skills she’s learned in her travels helped her in her research for this book?
- Over the years, Orly’s understanding of her connection to Anneliese transforms. But the transformation of her feelings isn’t the first time that sexuality is explored in Exile Music. How does this story broaden or change our understanding of sexuality in the 1930s? Steil says that she “purposely avoided labeling Orly’s sexuality.” Why do you think she made this choice? What role does Orly’s sexuality — her attractions and her passions — play in Exile Music, and how does it shape her experiences and the way the plot unfolds?
- Orly’s mother starts a bakery in Bolivia, and returning to the recipes that they loved in Vienna is at first a sign to Orly that her mother has found hope and purpose at last. But her mother’s baking disguises a dark secret. Even before this secret threatens those closest to her, Orly disapproves of her mother’s choices. What do you think? Has her mother earned her revenge? Does revenge ever solve a problem or resolve pain?
- The Bolivian Andes are the most prominent geographic feature in Orly’s new home, and their presence on the horizon comforts her, amazes her, and gives Steil ample opportunity to describe the beauty of this country. Steil says, “Many of the things that struck me about La Paz are also the things that struck Orly. First, the mountains. Which are spectacularly present every moment of the day and at the end of every street. I couldn’t get over the joy I felt every time I looked at them.” How do the geographical features of where we live shape our emotions? Have you ever felt a deep connection to a geographical feature — the seaside, a lakeshore, a valley, forest, or even a city block? How did that feeling of connection shape your memory or attachment to a place? What do you think the steadiness or omnipresence of the mountains in Bolivia represent to Orly?
- How did you feel about the end of the book? How would the story have been different if Orly had decided to return to France with Anneliese? Why do you think she didn’t feel that was an option?
- Why do you think Steil decided to center the story on Orly, rather than her parents or an older character?
- Some people are able to find ways to cope with trauma and go on with their lives, which others cannot get past it. What do you think makes a person resilient? What makes Orly and her father more resilient than her mother?
- In the first movement of the book, Orly learns the Greek myth of Iphis and Ianthe, two women who fall in love, and how the gods change one of them into a man so they can be married. Orly rejects this and says, if the gods are so powerful why can’t they simply let the two women be happy together as women? How do you feel about this statement? What does it say about Orly? Did you think about things like this reading myths when you were young?
- About halfway through the book, Orly is talking with her Aymara friend Nayra, and she notices that Nayra always gestures in front of her when talking about the past, and behind her when talking about the future. To explain this, she says, “The past is right in front of us, where we can see it. It’s the future we can’t see.” This is at a point in the book where there are so many unknowns for Orly, in the same way there are so many unknowns for all of us. How would you describe Orly’s relationship to the unknown? How would you describe your own?
- One of the book’s epigraphs comes from Edwidge Danticat, who said, “Re-creating your entire life is a form of reinvention on par with the greatest works of literature.” How does this relate to the story of Exile Music? How does it relate to refugees all over the world? How do you feel about that assertion?
Jewish literature inspires, enriches, and educates the community.
Help support the Jewish Book Council.