|THE AUSCHWITZ VIOLIN
Maria Ãngels Anglada
Translated by Martha Tennent
Corsair/Constable & Robinson (www.constablerobinson.com)
For a long time, I have been fascinated by the events of the Holocaust, by the stories of the individuals, on both sides of the metaphorical fence, who were caught up in those terrible events. I can trace this fascination back to 1993 and the image of that small red coat weaving through a black-and-white landscape of terror and death as I watched, in awe, as Steven Spielberg told the story of Schindler’s List. In the intervening years, I’ve visited Prague, Berlin and the small town of Obersalzberg, seen the sights, read the stories and soaked up the atmosphere. And the fascination lingers. As a result, I’m drawn to this specialist genre of “Holocaust fiction” – John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key – and its companion “Holocaust non-fiction” – the inspiration for the aforementioned Spielberg film, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally; the excellent The Nuremberg Interviews: Conversations with the Defendants and Witnesses by Leon Goldensohn. When I saw Maria Ãngels Anglada’s The Auschwitz Violin on the shelf of my local bookshop, then, it was a foregone conclusion that it would end up part of my own collection.
The novel opens in the winter of 1991. Climent, a world-reknowned violinist who plays as part of a trio, arrives in Krakow as part of a European tour. During a concert, he is struck by the beautiful sound of the instrument played by the orchestra’s first violinist. Keen to discover more, he strikes up a friendship with the older woman. As he is waiting in the airport, he is given a stack of papers and as he reads, he discovers the horrific and fascinating tale of the violin’s origins, and of the man who made it. Daniel, a Jewish luthier, crafted the beautiful instrument during his incarceration in one of the many sub-camps of Auschwitz. Working on the violin in the mornings, and in the I. G. Farben factory in the afternoons, he soon discovers that as well as making the best violin he can, he’s also fighting for his own survival: his work on the instrument is the subject of a cruel wager between the camp’s commander and the evil Dr Rascher, and his own life is forfeit should he fail.
The Auschwitz Violin is a work of fiction, something that is easy to forget as you read, although it is populated here and there with historical figures: Schindler puts in an appearance; and Auschwitz’s Dr Sigmund Rascher, who used the endless supply of “subhumans” in the camp as subjects in his inhuman medical experiments, is a dark and disturbing figure ever in the background. The slim novel – it weighs in at just over one hundred pages – is interspersed with actual SS documentation which, in itself, is something of an educational and harrowing read (“Women’s hair: …3000 kilos,” an “Inventory of Clothes and Other Objects Collected at the Lublin and Auschwitz Concentration Camps” tells us).
Short as it is, this is a powerful and emotional story that will leave an indelible mark on the mind of anyone who reads it. More than the story of a talented young man and the beautiful violin he creates, it’s a story of hope and of man’s innate desire to live, to keep going despite the fact that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s also a story about love and friendship, and of the bonds that form under seemingly impossible circumstances. Anglada has captured perfectly the horror of the camp, the stress and exhaustion that the inmates suffer. The Daniel we meet is but a shadow of the man he once was, and we experience life in Auschwitz through his eyes: the joy when he discovers that his wife is relatively safe, better-fed and -treated than the poor wretches with whom he shares the camp; the horror as he discovers that he has been promised to Rascher should he fail to complete the violin, a horror that is made worse by the fact that he has no idea what his deadline is; the tiredness caused by being overworked and underfed, and the constant terror of falling asleep “on the job”, which will lead to certain death.
The Auschwitz Violin is short and bittersweet. It’s a beautiful little novel, wonderfully written. Corsair have done an excellent job, from the packaging down to the unusual font used to present the story, which makes this slim volume perfect for any collector’s shelf. If you’re at all interested in this subject, or if you enjoyed the stories of Schindler or that young boy in the striped pyjamas, then this is definitely one for you. I would love to see this novel reach a wider audience, and hope that people take advantage of the fact that it is now available in English – for the first time – to pick it up and give it a try.