Jennifer Rosner’s novel is focused on Roza and her daughter Shira, who are hiding from the Germans in a confined space, in the loft of an old barn. This is Poland 1941 and stories have spread about what happens to any Jews found in town. Roza has already lost her husband and her parents were killed in front of her. She is determined that she will stay with and protect her 5 year old daughter. She also knows what can happen to people found to be concealing Jews, and out in the country there have been barn burnings and arrests. They must learn to be quiet, which is very difficult with a 5 year old, especially one as musical as Shira. Her grandfather made violins, her father played violin and Roza is a cellist. She thinks Shira may have a gift, because she’s always singing. In this confined space though, they must remain quiet. To keep her occupied, Roza encourages Shira’s pretence that they have a little yellow bird. The bird sits in Shira’s palm and sings, and they play at feeding it. It seems to keep Shira’s mind away from the hunger and cold, and when necessary it appears to keep the little girl calm.
Early in the novel, Roza devises a system of gestures so that she and her daughter can communicate, when it becomes too dangerous even for whispers. A hand clutched to the chest as if holding a gun, means soldiers. A brush of the fingers across the eyelids means to rest. I was interested to read that the author’s family are affected by hearing loss so this could possibly be the inspiration behind this moving detail of survival. The farmer is a neighbour and while he is performing an act of kindness, he also has ulterior motives. His wife enjoys taking the little girl for short walks round the farm, and introducing her to the animals. He takes advantage of his position to abuse Roza, who does whatever it takes to keep her daughter safe. The events of the book occupy only this small space and short time between the years 1941-44. Even though we don’t move away from this one space, until right at the end of the novel, it is clear that the atrocities of the Nazis are never far from Roza’s mind. We are told the story of a violin maker who is handed a violin for rebuild and repair, with the ashes of its owner still present inside it.
It’s hard to find a way to write a review that truly honours the terrible things people in Poland suffered during WW2. I had in-laws, both gone now, who came through terrifying ordeals to settle in this country after the war. My mother-in-law was not much older than Shira when she was transported out of the Warsaw Ghetto through the sewers of the city by herself. I can’t imagine what her parents went through just making that decision, never mind the sleepless nights worrying whether she would make it. The enormity of this choice hit me while reading about Roza’s eventual decision to leave Shira at the Catholic convent. It is the hardest choice to make, to completely focus on the survival of the child and not the mental anguish it will cause. To ignore your own needs to keep them with you. To know that separation might give them a better chance of survival than staying by your side. For Roza, it is the safest choice for her daughter, plus she will always have music in her life. I defy anyone to read this book and not be moved by this beautiful story. Despite the horrors of the war and their confinement and fear, this mother and daughter have carved out a small space of beauty, safety and trust. This is a bond that will never be broken no matter where in the world they both are. However, I have no doubt in my mind that Roza would do everything in her power to return to her daughter.