What did Holocaust survivors go through on a daily basis in order to stay alive, and how did these experiences shape their consciousness? Jennifer Rosner’s debut novel attempts to answer these questions as it follows Roza and her young daughter, Shira, who flee the Nazis during World War II.
The first half of the book is confined to a barn in Poland where the mother and daughter have hidden out of desperation — only to be discovered by the owners, a husband and wife. The couple has agreed, begrudgingly, to shelter Roza and Shira, though not purely out of kindness; the hosts quickly begin to feel entitled to favors in return for their sacrifice. Conditions worsen by the day, and Roza faces the constant threat of betrayal by their hosts, who are themselves victims of circumstance. Although Roza and Shira must stay silent at all times to avoid attracting attention, they seek hope in memories, which they keep alive to the extent that they can, and in their shared love of music.
Eventually, mother and daughter are advised to depart on separate paths — Shira is sent to a convent orphanage, while Roza is left to fend for herself in the woods. What follows in the second half of the novel is a portrayal of their parallel survival journeys, as Roza makes her way to safety and community, and Shira adapts to new surroundings and people. Although Shira is stripped of parts of her identity and family, she holds onto her passion for music, and her talent is nurtured by new caretakers who recognize her precociousness. While she cannot fully understand or accept the events unfolding around her — or the motives behind her persecution — her commitment to the violin carries her through the most difficult times.
Rosner brings to light some of the lesser-acknowledged aspects of survivor psychology. One of these is the burden of guilt survivors often carried with them after being forced to leave loved ones behind. Rosner’s characters are also complex and nuanced, and frequently contradict themselves; they cannot be judged as entirely good or bad. During the Holocaust, Rosner demonstrates, victims had no moral playbooks to refer to; pragmatism was pitted against righteousness. Both Roza and daughter are forced to find footing in realities that have been thrust upon them. The novel is well textured, and there’s an immediacy to the story that makes it possible for readers to empathize with the characters as they endure various shades of struggle to survive — from hunger and discomfort to mental anguish, confusion, and denial.
While the story feels at times familiar, and the prose can lose momentum with predictable pacing and conventions, it doesn’t opt for a predictable conclusion. Instead, it gives a realistic but optimistic depiction of the burdens survivors carried after the war’s conclusion. When the war ended, new struggles of postwar adaptation took their place. Nevertheless, Rosner shows, life does go on — and are there many art forms more life-affirming than music? The Yellow Bird Sings is a welcome addition to the literature of the Holocaust.
Oren Smilansky is a writer and editor. He lives in New York City.