Is there anything that would make life in a concentration camp bearable? Anything that could make it worth living? Is it justified that talent will help you survive? And if you do, how can you go on living? Maria Àngels Anglada’s short and powerful novel The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz asks precisely these questions.
When Climent, a famous violinist, is invited to Krakow in 1991 for a concert, he meets the elderly Polish violinist Regina who plays on an exquisite violin. He is intrigued, he thinks he should know the luthier but, as he is told, he doesn’t. He is curious and she is keen to share the story of the beautiful instrument. The violin has been made by Daniel, Regina’s uncle, a luthier who was sent to Auschwitz. Regina was only a small girl then. She had lost her parents in the ghetto but was saved and spent the war with a non-Jewish family who let her pass as their daughter.
Daniel who is still a young man, is only saved and not exterminated right away with many others because he pretends to be a carpenter. He helps to build a greenhouse for the sadistic and despotic camp Commander and later, when the commander finds out that he is a luthier, he is ordered to build a violin for him. Another captive, Bronislaw, will have to play on it during one of the dinners the Commander gives for other Nazis. Both their lives depend on Daniel’s success. If he wasn’t such a talented and passionate luthier, he wouldn’t stand a chance to make such a delicate instrument, with hands that are rough and split from the cold and material that is far from perfect.
Working on the violin changes everything for Daniel. It isn’t only a means to survive, like helping with the greenhouse was, but it gives sense to his days, makes a human being out of him again.
The way his workshop in Poland is described and how he makes the new violin, with so much care and love, infuses this book with beauty, despite the horrors which are evoked as well.
Every chapter begins with a quote from a historical official document in which life in the camp is rendered in a statistical and factual manner. There are reports about shootings, about medical experiments and other atrocities. This adds another layer to the book, echoes the horrors Daniel has to endure and stands in stark contrast to the beauty he experiences while remembering his old life and crafting the violin.
When the instrument is finished, Bronislaw, the violinist, plays Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” on it. Schindler, a passing figure in the novel, tells someone about Bronislaw and he is freed and brought to Sweden.
It’s a beautifully written book but a bit light at times. I don’t know if working on an instrument would really have transformed the days at the camp like this.
The idea that two people can better their lives, maybe even save it, because of their talents struck me as cruel but realistic. It’s certainly true that those with special talents had a higher chance to live longer or even survive. What does that say about us humans.? Do we always need a reason to help? Talent, looks, frailty, illness, as long as there is something different and special. The thought made me shudder because it’s at the core of so much injustice in this world, not only in the concentration camps.
Since Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” is so important in the book, I attached a recording. It’s a very haunting piece.
The Auschwitz Violin manages to capture the horror’s of the concentration camps without being horrifying. I think Anglada wanted to tell us that there can be beauty in the most horrible places. I hope that’s true.