I get wary whenever I contemplate another book about a “good Nazi.” If they were so good, how did they wind up being a Nazi? Aaah, because their fathers were super NAZIS, but they never were. This is the story of a talented Jewish prisoner who played the piano for a cruel Commandant and his son. Jewish prisoners did many things to save their own lives, including using their artistic or musical talent in order to stay alive and hopefully to share some of their gains with family. Hanna Mendel, the younger daughter of a middle-class Jewish family is a talented, prize-winning young pianist whose career is cut short when she, her parents, and her older sister, Erika, are ordered out of the Hungarian ghetto, Debrecen, to be “resettled” in Auschwitz-Birkenau. After a devastating train journey in a cattle car that robs her fastidious mother of what was left of her sanity, Hannah meets her piano teacher in the camp, who advises Hannah to apply to audition for the orchestra with the various “perks” to which the orchestra is privy. Orchestras played to accompany their camp-mates marching off to slave labor and even to the ovens. Those who had talent used it, not only for their own gain, but also on behalf of their fellow inmates. Hannah, who is a comely blonde even with shaved head, auditions for the orchestra, but is to play for the Commandant instead, and is selected from the four contestants by his silent, morose son. Hannah is now able to keep her older sister, Erika, alive through the bits of food she is able to smuggle for her. There are other examples of survival strategies throughout the story and it soon becomes evident that there are no longer any simple solutions or simple judgments in Hanna’s life and neither are the camp characters all good or all bad. This review is not going to reveal anything further except to guarantee you will like the book very, very much. Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Playing for the Commandant
Marcia W. Posner, Ph.D., of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, is the library and program director. An author and playwright herself, she loves reviewing for JBW and reading all the other reviews and articles in this marvelous periodical.
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