Play­ing for the Commandant

Suzy Zail
  • Review
By – October 31, 2014

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.

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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