A story of sur­vival

Ves­per Stam­per has cre­ated a heartrend­ing graphic novel about a teenage girl in the Holo­caust

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • MIRIAM KATES LOCK

Gerta was only 14 when the Nazis took her and her fa­ther away, and life as she knew it was over. Un­til that day she did not even know that she was Jewish. Gerta lived in Würzburg, Ger­many with Papa and her step­mother Maria, who to­gether filled her world with mu­sic. Papa, who played vi­ola in the Würzburg orches­tra, was teach­ing Gerta how to play the in­stru­ment. Maria was an opera singer and di­rected the chil­dren’s choir that Gerta joined. She loved to sing and didn’t go to school be­cause she was tu­tored at home – mu­sic was her life and she be­lieved that the changes hap­pen­ing in the world out­side her door would never touch her. She felt loved and safe with Papa and Maria, and although she missed her mother, who died in Köln (Cologne) when she was younger, Gerta’s mem­o­ries of her mother were fad­ing.

When Gerta looked out the win­dow, she could see groups of peo­ple with yel­low stars on their coats mov­ing through the streets. She knew they were Jews and that the Nazis were mak­ing them leave the city, but she did not know what be­ing Jewish meant. And although she felt badly for them, she was thank­ful that she was safe – af­ter all, she was Ger­man.

Or so she thought. Un­til one night, sol­diers barged into their apart­ment to take Gerta and Papa away.

What the Night Sings is a heartrend­ing story of one young girl’s sur­vival and her courage in re­build­ing her life.

In the first part of the novel, ti­tled “Lib­er­a­tion: Ber­gen-Belsen Con­cen­tra­tion Camp, April 15, 1945,” we meet Gerta at al­most 16, af­ter the camp has been lib­er­ated by Bri­tish sol­diers. Know­ing that Gerta sur­vives makes it a bit eas­ier to read the sec­ond part of the novel, where a younger Gerta is thrown into a crowded cat­tle car with her beloved Papa. It is in the cat­tle car that Papa de­cides to tell Gerta every­thing – why he tried to pro­tect her by not telling her they were Jewish and what re­ally hap­pened to her mother.

Gerta and her Papa are sent to There­sien­stadt and later to AuschwitzB­irke­nau, where Gerta loses her Papa for­ever. Some­how she sur­vives, and she is lib­er­ated from Ber­gen-Belsen at the end of the war.

Af­ter two long years in the camps, she has emerged as a young woman who must re­build her life with­out her fam­ily. As she strug­gles to process the hor­rors and losses of the pre­vi­ous two years, she meets boys her age, in­clud­ing Lev, an­other sur­vivor, and Micha, the son of a woman who died in her arms in Ber­gen-Belsen. For the first time, Gerta faces the chal­lenges of love and re­la­tion­ships.

Ves­per Stam­per, a tal­ented artist as well as a sen­si­tive writer, has crafted a mem­o­rable story. It is listed as a book for teens and young adults, but as with many other such books, it can and should be read by adults. The novel does not hide any­thing about the hor­rors that Gerta faced in the camps, which are in sharp con­trast with the Mozart and Bach that she car­ries within her heart. While there are pas­sages in the book that are painful to read, just like Gerta the book is filled with hope and the joy that mu­sic brings to her life – which is what keeps her strong and helps her sur­vive. What the Night Sings is beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated with poignant black-and-white draw­ings. The book is not only a trib­ute to the strength of those who, like Gerta, man­aged to sur­vive the con­cen­tra­tion camps de­spite all odds, but it also a beau­ti­ful and un­usual book of art. Through­out the night­mare of her two years in con­cen­tra­tion camps, Gerta man­ages to hang onto her fa­ther’s vi­ola. Not only does she never lose it, but she never loses the mu­sic in her heart.

“Back in my bar­racks, I crawl, weep­ing, un­der the worn blan­ket and soak my thin pil­low with tears. I need my papa. He was my only home. Reach­ing un­der the bed, I draw out the vi­ola case and tuck it in next to me. Its black leather cov­er­ing warms to my body, and I cry my­self to sleep, right in the mid­dle of the morn­ing.

My fa­ther’s vi­ola.

It is a for­est. It is a liv­ing tree. It is the heart­wood of our fam­ily. My fa­ther’s vi­ola is over two hun­dred years old, even older than Ger­many. It is the color of well-done pas­try, shin­ing like apri­cot glaze. Its fin­ger­board is mo­lasses and its neck is honey. It is but­ter and creamy tea, as warm as Papa’s arms, freck­led like Papa’s arms, strong and foun­da­tional like Papa’s arms.”

Some­times, not very of­ten, you read a book that has prose so ex­quis­ite that you are moved to read aloud to your­self just to sa­vor the words.

What the Night Sings is such a book.

(Ves­per Stam­per)

A DRAW­ING from ‘What the Night Sings’ de­pict­ing the bar­racks in Ber­genBelsen.

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