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Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

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When I received Suzy Zail’s Playing for the Commandant in the mail to review, I was immediately interested. It had only been two weeks since I had returned from a study tour run by my school’s Holocaust Studies program. I, along with forty of my classmates, two of my professors, and a Holocaust survivor, traveled to Poland, Lithuania, and Germany in search of various Holocaust related sites. We saw many, many places; four of the death camps included, Auschwitz being one of them.

To be perfectly honest, I really knew nothing about the Holocaust before I took this study tour. You are taught about it in school, but you are only taught the basic facts. I thought I knew enough about the Holocaust to maybe learn a couple new things on the study tour, but what I learned in those two weeks abroad was more than I could have ever anticipated.

I’ve contemplated why the Holocaust isn’t taught in depth in schools and I can’t quite figure out the reason. But I do know that if you want to learn about something, the best way to do it is experience it. Going to places like Auschwitz, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Ponar is an incredible opportunity. And for majority of people, it’s a once in a lifetime experience.

When I came back from the study tour, I realized that the only way you can really learn about the Holocaust is if you travel to these places. And traveling with knowledgeable guides makes all the difference as well. If you can, see the sights in person and talk to a survivor or even a second or third generation survivor if possible. The only way you can truly learn is if you “do”.

However much I promote traveling to Europe for education, I recognize how difficult a journey like that maybe. That’s why the next best thing is books, either textbooks or works of realistic fiction. Suzy Zail’s Playing for the Commandant follows a young Jewish pianist, Hanna, whose family is sent to Aushwitz-Birkenau. After her father is separated from them, Hanna is put in charge of keeping her mother and sister safe and making sure they all get home.

Hanna does everything she can to keep the three of them alive, even if that means playing piano for the commandant and his guests. But in a house where everyone is against her, Hanna knows someone there is at least one person who isn’t. But finding that one person proves to be difficult under the commandant’s watchful eye and sneaking around his distant son.

The Holocaust is such a vast subject and I found that it is best learned about through individual stories. If one wants to learn about it, especially one at a young age, novelized accounts are an excellent start. Zail adds a good novel to the Holocaust section of Young Adult Literature. Intriguing and well thought out, those who are eager to learn more will definitely enjoy.




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