Playing for the Commandant, by Suzy Zail;
Candlewick Press: Massachusetts, 2014;
When Suzy Zail, author of Playing for the Commandant, details how Hanna, our young Jewish protagonist, was shipped with her family to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, I couldn’t help but remember Anne Frank, whose life after her diary ended was very similar to Hanna’s. But Hanna, unlike Anne (who later died in a German camp), survives the horrible ordeal. How does she manage to live in such a place, with exhausting labor, barely any food, and brutal captors? She plays piano.
Before the war, she had been an accomplished concert pianist. At the camp, she is forced to play for the commandant, the merciless warden. It promises her a break from labor and a few extra morsels of food but is just as dangerous as the camp. The punishment for a wrong note? Losing a finger. Any other offense? Death. Staying alive won’t be easy, but Hanna will make it somehow. Thrown into the mix is the commandant’s moody son, Karl, who spends his time slouched in a chair, secretly admiring Hanna. Talk about unlikely love.
Zail’s gruesome descriptions of life in Auschwitz are moving and inspiring. Hanna’s first-person narration is a great choice, because it makes the horrors even more vivid and heart-wrenching. When Hanna smuggles a broken piano key into the camp, it is clear to the reader that the key is a metaphor for her comfortable middle-class life back home in Hungary. A tale of woe is transformed into a tale of resilience when it is narrated by Hanna.
Yet even more riveting than the details of the killing, the starvation, and the pain are the stories of friendship at the camp. In Auschwitz, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. But where there is dark, there is love, and hearing about Hanna embracing her older sister, Hanna comforting her ill mother, and Hanna being comforted by a servant girl in the commandant’s house is Zail’s way of promising light at the end of the tunnel.
Throughout the book, Hanna gradually finds ways to rebel. First, it’s giving her sister a morsel of extra bread. Then, it’s sneaking stolen food from the commandant’s kitchen into the laundry delivery to Auschwitz. A startling (and to the reader, unsettling) crescendo to this is the secret romance she shares with Karl. Hanna is also unsettled by this, and it is an interesting look at how little we can control our emotions. Although Karl’s father is responsible for the gas chambers, the killings, and the horrific cruelties at the camp, Hanna still loves him, though not without a bit of guilt.
This concept of emotions taking over is something that Zail handles deftly, never once stumbling on any aspect. It makes for a very readable, beautifully written, hard to put down book that should be required reading for anyone interested in World War II or Anne Frank, and even for those who have never heard of the Holocaust. It mixes pain with love, romance with suffering, and survival with history in a book where life conquers all.