The Auschwitz Violin – an old song, but not played out

Maria Àngels Anglada’s international hit, The Auschwitz Violin, is the first of my latest batch of books from Lovely Mum. At a mere 128pp with big margins and large type, it’s also one of the briefest books I’ve read in a very long time.

It follows the story of Auschwitz prisoner and luthier (violin maker) Daniel, who is tasked with making an instrument for the unpredictable camp commander Sauckel (a real life Nazi who was hanged after the Nuremberg trials). If he fails, he learns, his life will be traded for a case of Burgundy wine with the sadistic Dr Rascher (another real-life war criminal), who wants healthy bodies for his dreaded experiments.

As he applies himself to the task of making the violin, Daniel rediscovers his humanity and sense of pride – once more he feels like a human being hard at work, not just a number, a piece of meat waiting to be exploited or frivolously murdered. The question is, will Daniel have done enough to save himself? What will be his fate?

The Auschwitz Violin was completely panned by the Metro, which called it: “A saccharine paean to the strength of the human spirit [that] does nothing to justify the flatness of a story lacking any sense of the unimaginability of hell.” It is held up as “an example of the unfortunate industry of Holocaust fiction: neat, moral tales that borrow historical resonance to inject drama into their earnest pages”. So, is it fair to accuse Anglada of jumping on the ‘Holocaust bandwagon’? Does her story justify its telling?

I do think the Metro review was harsh – I didn’t find the book saccharine, but you could argue that there was a certain flatness to it. Possibly because the book was so short, it was difficult to invest in Daniel in quite the same way as one might normally – we are only privy to a very short period of his life. The book didn’t hold me in a vice-grip but it was well-written and interesting and it gave a very personal vision of concentration camp hell. As is her prerogative, Anglada doesn’t focus on the physical hardships of camp life as much as the uphill struggle of trying to remain positive in the face of hopelessness. Her emphasis is on the human need to keep a sense of dignity and identity and in this way I think she does add something worthwhile to the canon of Holocaust fiction.

I was ambivalent about her liberal use of extracts from historical documents – sometimes these didn’t seem to add anything to the story – but a couple of them really brought a poignant sense of context to Daniel’s tale. The most notable of these was an inventory of items recovered from particular concentration camps, which read like this:

“Men’s clothing, used (not counting white clothing), 97,000 items”

“Women’s hair, 1 wagon, equivalent to 3,000 kilos”

These dispassionate lists are harrowing, especially when set within a very human, personal story, and they remind us of the sheer scale of Nazi atrocities – as well as the way they were perpetrated – often in a very businesslike manner.

Overall then, is Anglada’s book worth the read? I would say yes. It’s certainly not a big commitment; I read it over the course of a couple of days in short sittings. At its heart, it’s an eloquent little novella, refreshing in the way it doesn’t wallow in the degradation of the Holocaust, choosing instead to give a small snapshot of dignity, snatched from the jaws of humiliation.

Buy this book

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