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
Courtesy of Penguin Random House and Jennifer Steil
- As children, Anneliese and Orly imagine a complex and ever-evolving fantasy world that they inhabit together, with their plush rabbits. How does this world reflect or serve as a retreat from what is going on in the world around them? How does their play help them digest or adapt to the growing menace around them? How does this storyworld serve the book as a whole? What do you remember about the games you played as a child? Childhood games vary widely by culture. Why do you think our imaginary friends or childhood games shine so brightly in our memories?
- Did you know that Jewish refugees fled to Bolivia during WWII before reading Exile Music? 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?
- 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 through which Orly understands her world. 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. What other elements of Orly’s life give her the sensation of home? Or help her to connect her past to her present? What activity or ritual has for you acted as a lens through which you understand your life? Or that helps you find your way forward through grief?
- 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, often in the service of creating a poem. 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 moved it was imperative that Steil find a way to establish a steady day-to-day rhythm and that often meant learning a new language, making new friends, adapting to new foods and ways of shopping, and learning the rhythms 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 help her in 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? Do you think we have a tendency to whitewash the sexuality of past generations?
- 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 Andes of Bolivia are the most prominent geographic feature in Orly’s new home, and their presence on the horizon comfort her, amaze her, and give 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 mountain ranges 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 made a different decision? Why do you think she didn’t feel that was an option?
- Why do you think the author chose to tell the story from the point of view of a young girl?
- Music provides both the structure and the overriding theme of the book. What role does music play in each of the character’s lives? Why is music important to them? How does it help them adjust to their new lives? What is the significance of Orly’s mother Julia refusing to sing once they leave Europe?
- What role does poetry play in helping Orly connect her past to her present?
- Did you know the story of the children of Izieu? Why do you think that piece of history was included in the book?
- What is the significance of Orly’s relationship with the Aymara girl Nayra? Why do you think Orly was particularly attuned to the discrimination against the indigenous peoples of Bolivia?
Jewish literature inspires, enriches, and educates the community.
Help support the Jewish Book Council.