Around seven million people died from this horrific, devastating, bloodbath massacre, called the Holocaust. Those who speak of this event are mournful and silenced. A sixteen year old Jewish girl, named Hanna, is living the life she wants in Auschwitz, Poland, where she is a talented piano player and going to her first dance with a nice boy. Everything is going as planned, until her family is rudely stripped from their home and the Nazis viciously take over. The only thing left for Hanna is her sister, her mother, and her C-sharp piano piece to recall her dream of becoming a professional piano player. As Hanna arrives to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, she is asked to audition to play piano for the commandant, a German leader, and his fellow visitors. When she is picked to be the pianist, she leaves her sister and the gruesome tasks at the camp to play there full time, only coming to the camp at night to sleep. As Hanna starts spending days at the commandant's house, she meets his son, Karl. Karl and Hanna start developing a friendly relationship. Even though Hanna knows that her feelings for Karl are forbidden and unethical, she can't hide what she feels towards him. In Hanna’s eyes, Karl’s different from regular Germans; he gives her food, and provides her with warm clothes during winter. Hanna has to choose between what she thinks is love and survival. How would you feel if you were put in this situation?
After reading Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail, the ultimate thematic concept is suffering. Hanna is hit with so many roadblocks that she can't even stand straight. Initially she got a scholarship to Budapest Conservatorium of Music, and that all disappeared when Hitler took over. That scholarship meant the world to her. It meant that she was one step closer to pursuing her dream of becoming a famous piano player. Her dream was deferred when she had to leave all her talent and opportunity behind to survive the dreadful days of the Holocaust. Hanna’s family lived in a ghetto, where a community of Jews lived. “Inside the ghetto walls no one called you a dirty Jew. There was no us and them. It was just us and we all wore stars, and no one had new clothes, and we all shared our bedrooms with our brothers and sisters. Nothing divided or distinguished us from one another and-like the cabbage simmering on the stove- it was comforting” (Zail 11). Hanna and her family struggled when they were stripped from their home and their community, where discrimination didn't exist because they all had something in common: being Jewish. They were a family. Hanna left the only place she felt safe, to live in a camp where she had to cut her hair and change her name to a simple number: A10573. This number made her feel as if she had no identity and was the same as everyone else. When Hanna left the ghetto, she only had her family to look after. She mostly did not recognize or see any of her friends once the Nazis separated everyone. The Holocaust ended relationships, separated the familiarity of one’s life, and made all the minorities suffer severely by making them go entirely out of their comfort zone. The only feeling people shared during this time was fear. How would you feel leaving the life you’ve ever known?
During the 1940s, families were split apart because of different ages and different genders filing together. Hanna, her mother and sister were able to stay together, but her father was assigned someplace else. Hanna suffered from losing her parent, whom she dearly loved. She was forced to let go and forget that she was never going to see her father again. Hanna’s family suffered from separation and love they kept for each other. “‘Look after each other,’ he whispered, ‘and get home safe. And when you do, tell everyone what you saw and what they did to us’. And then he was gone, another pair of marching feet swallowed up by the night” (Zail 38). Families during the Holocaust experienced grief from losing everything they had. They were forced to do inexplicable things, and were traumatized seeing all those people dead, either in gas chambers or in the cold, right in front of their eyes. The Jews and minorities experienced death, which caused them to feel only heartbroken and empty inside. There was no color left in their eyes, no reason to keep living. Hanna fought to stay alive to save her family. When she got extra food from work, she would give it to her sister, Erika, so that she would stay healthy. Hanna always put her family's needs in front of hers.
The book cover symbolizes that Hanna's happiness exists when she plays the piano. It also has a picture of barbed wire reflecting that it was used for the concentration camps, so that everyone in the camp couldn't escape. Barbed wire showed no way out for those inside. The author did a great job of showing the comparison of her dream and the time period in which this story takes place.
I was very pleased with Playing for the Commandant and how this historical fiction book came to life. Suzy Zail took the reader to 1944 in Auschwitz, Poland and went through everything that could've distinctly happened during the Holocaust, such as being a part of a concentration camp. The author gathered many facts to carry along her story, to relate to everyday life during this time period. Many awful things happened to the Jews, including having to walk during the freezing cold winter without a jacket or even shoes, and the author does a great job of creating a clear understanding. Germany’s leaders believed the Jews were evil, because they were different, they believed in different things. During this book, Hanna ultimately finds out more about what the Nazis are doing and through the process, loses her innocence. “The strange, hovering smog that I'd noticed the night I got off the train, the smell of charred meat, the smoke that belched from the giant chimneys… They'd been burning bodies. And the piles of dead outside-they weren't waiting to be buried. They were waiting to be burned” (Zail 21). The innocent girl was finally learning the truth about what terrible things the Nazis were executing. With Hanna being so young, her mother always tried to protect her from all the bad things that was going on. In the beginning of the the book, Hanna wants to be an amazing pianist, and when she hears she got the scholarship she is very hopeful, but when the Nazis destroy their ghetto and her piano, her dreams rapidly slip away. Because one of the only things Hanna loves is her piano, she had to find love and hope in those who she knew never had. This book truthfully showed how horrible the Holocaust was, but also created a plot that showed the best in people, such as the commandant’s son. When times are tough, do you try to look for the best in people? Do you believe love is worth fighting for? Would you fight for love, even if it was the enemy you were fighting for? Is love that strong?