My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Hanna Mendel is living in a ghetto in WWII Hungary. One horrible night she and her family are rounded up and thrown onto a truck bound for Auschwitz. This is not what Hanna had planned for her life, and things are about to take an even more unexpected turn.
Hanna, her sister Erika, and her parents have managed to remain happy, after a fashion, since being made residents of the ghetto. Food is meagre, but they get by, and Hanna is still able to practise on her beloved piano. She had planned to become a concert pianist, but those plans had to change when the Jews in her town were made prisoners in their own homes. Late one night the Nazis enter her house and tell Hanna and her family that they are closing the ghetto and they are being “resettled”. Before the soldiers return to take them away, Hanna’s father takes them all into the back garden and silently counts out steps, holding his hands up with numbers to let them know how many steps he has taken. He buries the family’s valuables in the earth and makes sure everyone knows where it is – all in total silence. Hanna has no idea how important this simple ritual will become for her.
At the last minute, as the soldiers are forcing them all out the door the next day, Hanna runs back to her piano and yanks off the loose C-sharp key her father never got around to fixing. Erika helps her to sew it into the lining of her jacket so she can keep it with her. Forced onto a crowded train car, with nowhere to sit and surrounded by 200 people, Hanna and her family endure a nightmarish journey to their new “home” Auschwitz Labour Camp. In the Camp, life quickly takes bad turn after bad turn for Hanna and her family. Her father is sent to another part of the Camp and they never see him again. Hanna’s mother increasingly disassociates herself from reality, reminding Hanna to practise her piano and planning her next recital. Erika becomes her rock and someone who sees the ugly truth about where they are. Mistreated by the Jewish guard in her dormitory, starving and filthy, Hanna grasps at the opportunity to play the piano when she gets it. Only one problem – she is to play for the Commandant in his house.
When she “audtitions” for the Commandant in his house, Hanna thinks she has no chance of being selected, but the Commandant’s son, Karl, chooses her. This decision will change the course of her life – not only in the camp, but for the rest of her life – period. She receives new clothes. but she can only wear them in the Commandant’s house. Hanna receives extra rations, which she tried to share with her sister, only to find her sister is persecuted by the rest of the female prisoners for having extra food. Hanna’s life is lived between the house and the camp. The Commandant likes her piano playing and she is there a lot. His son Karl usually sits in the corner, sullen and not making eye contact with her at all. She thinks he hates Jews. She is wrong.
I don’t want to tell you any more of the plot because it is yours to discover, but the second half of the book becomes filled with suspense and tragedy. I was unable to put it down for the last 80 pages or so – I just had to find out what happened. This is not an easy book to read at times, but it is sensitively written and Hanna is a fantastic, real, central character. The story raises all sorts of questions about people’s expectations of one another based on the most basic of details and also about how just one person can make a difference. This book will stay with me for a long time.
Recommended for ages 12 and up.