Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail
I am always drawn to stories from the Holocaust and try to read everything that comes out. It’s odd, I think, to want to read about something so unthinkable but I do. For me it is akin to staring down the devil. While teaching in London back in 2011 I made a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. It was a difficult trip but I felt that I wanted to witness what happened to all of the people who died so horribly in those camps. I am glad that I did.
In Playing for the Commandant, Zail takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a young girl, just 16, who was an accomplished pianist in Budapest, Hungary when her family was arrested and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the camp she and her mother and sister are spared the gas chamber and sent to a barracks where their daily torture of starvation and back-breaking work begins. Soon her mother begins to lose her faculties and Hannah and her sister try desperately to protect her from the daily “selections.” Hannah is chosen to be the Commandant’s personal pianist and with very mixed feelings she accepts the position. She knows she will be given more food and better clothing that she plans to pass along to her mother and sister. At the commandant’s house Hannah gets to witness close up the abject cruelty in the heart of her captor but she is surprised by his artistic son who despises what is going on in the camps his father oversees. The conflict between playing beautiful music and “selling out” is a wonderful dynamic in this story. I think this book will find a place in the corpus of Holocaust literature for young adults. This book is meant for readers age 12 and up.
This book brought a documentary film to mind as I read it. Called The Lady in Room 6 it tells the story of Alice Herz Sommer, a 109 year-old survivor of Terezin. Ms. Sommer was an extraordinary pianist who secured a place in the Terezin orchestra and, through the music, was able to survive the Holocaust. This documentary is absolutely fantastic. Ms. Sommer had a joie de vivre that was unbelievable given what she had been through. The documentary won the Oscar for best documentary in 2014. Sadly, Ms. Sommer died just before the Oscar was awarded. She died at 110. Treat yourself to this documentary which is available in numerous places online. It was the most uplifting true story I have ever seen. Her story had a lasting effect on my life.