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Playing for the Commandant


Playing for the Commandant

Hanna Mendel is a talented 16-year-old pianist with a scholarship to the Budapest Conservatorium of Music and a date on Saturday night to a dance with a boy. But Hanna is also a Jew, and the year is 1944. The Jews are rounded up from the ghetto, and suddenly, nothing matters about Hanna except that her family lit the Shabbat candles each Friday night. Forced into a boxcar, sent to the right by Dr. Mengele’s baton, head shaved and forced to strip naked, Hanna’s identity is replaced by the tattooed number A10573. Her mother loses more and more of her sanity each day, and her older sister Erika struggles to protect Hanna from the cruelties of the concentration camp. They are in Auschwitz, and it is worse than words can describe.

When Hanna has the chance to audition as the pianist for Commandant Jager, she swallows her revulsion at the cruel Nazi official to play. Surprisingly, she is chosen, and so escapes from the back-breaking work in the quarries that her sister and mother must do. Each day, she goes to the commandant’s house. She plays for him often, and yet Hanna is angered and puzzled by the commandant’s son, Karl Jager. He is handsome, aloof and always angry. Why does he continue to come and hear her?

The storyline is engaging and always fraught with the tension of survival --- and more than survival, humanity.

As the weeks pass, Karl reveals more and more of the kind heart behind his outward anger. Hanna doesn’t want to --- how could she be --- but she is falling in love. Yet war rages on, and the chance of even survival is bleak. Hanna’s mother and sister are weak, and in the concentration camps, the slightest thing or nothing at all can get them killed. Hanna must hold fast to her desperate hope for life as every day, she sits at the piano bench, playing for the commandment.

This novel did not try to encompass every experience of the concentration camps, but rather the unique and still horrific situation of a talented pianist. It displayed a detailed and striking description of the evils of Auschwitz, and music set the stage.Piano references abounded, and music helped Hanna through dark times, revealing more of her nature, though I felt her character could have been more developed. Hanna and her family were barely introduced before they were thrust into Auschwitz’s destruction.

More description would have helped to cement the setting of this tale. The transitions were lacking, and I found myself having to reread multiple times to find out where the characters were. Often, the narrative told merely what happened and not what Hanna thought. The love story was the opposite of this: the reader was very aware of Hanna’s emotions, but the descriptions of her meetings with Karl Jager and Karl’s actions were blurred. Despite this, the storyline is engaging and always fraught with the tension of survival --- and more than survival, humanity. Hanna’s struggle to regain her life is well-portrayed.

PLAYING FOR THE COMMANDANT does not hold the heart-wrenching agony of some of the memoirs that recapture the agonies of the Holocaust, but it adds another viewpoint to the masses --- another voice raised to honor the survivors, to remember the dead and to warn the future.

Reviewed by Mary M., Teen Board Member on October 15, 2014

Playing for the Commandant
by Suzy Zail

  • Publication Date: October 14, 2014
  • Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult 12+
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763664030
  • ISBN-13: 9780763664039