In this touching Holocaust story, “What the Night Sings,” by Vesper Stamper, a young Holocaust survivor must reconcile her life after she is liberated from a concentration camp.
The reader meets Gerta at Bergen-Belsen just before the camp is liberated. Rivkah, an acquaintance of Gerta’s parents from their hometown of Köln, is dying in Gerta’s arms. Just as the liberation soldiers enter, Rivkah dies. Thus is the reader introduced to the fact of death and its importance in Gerta’s life.
Gerta is not the usual fictional Holocaust survivor. She didn’t even know she was Jewish because after her mother died when Gerta was young, her father moved them to another town, got them forged identity papers claiming they were of Aryan heritage, and shunned all things Jewish. He did not tell Gerta about this. But her father was a musician, a viola player, and he taught Gerta music hoping that it would help her survive. They lived with Maria, an opera singer of note, and she, too, instructed Gerta in voice.
But when Gerta and her father are taken by the Nazis, Gerta’s father is cruelly hurt and ends up in the line going to the gas chamber. Gerta is carrying his precious viola, and when they think she is a musician, it saves her life. She is included in the Auschwitz musical group, playing as the trains arrive, playing while life and death decisions are made, learning to just play the music and not see the destruction happening before her eyes.
The story tells about Gerta’s life before, during and after the war through many flashbacks. The flashbacks are deftly done and the whole story flows beautifully. What makes this story different from many other Holocaust stories is that the author takes Gerta beyond the concentration camp. Few books show what happened to those who survived the camps, but this novel does. A strange thing about the book is that while reading, the reader will often assume that it’s a true account. It sounds that real. It’s not, but that makes the writing stand out — it’s a story told from the heart, but a fictional heart that rings true.
The actual format of this special book also deserves comment. It’s a large book, and the paper is thick and feels expensive. Throughout the book are sepia illustrations created by the author. The illustrations are simple, but more powerful because of the lack of color and the beauty of the drawings.
It’s a book that should definitely be included with other young adult books about this time period. It’s probably not suitable for most middle grade readers, although mature fifth graders would have no problem with the content.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Knopf, for review purposes.
The trailer follows: