I always find it admirable when an author can write a book for children (the publisher recommends ages 6-11) that illustrates the triumph of the spirit of Holocaust survivors and conveys a sense of the horror without describing it. In The Harmonica, Tony Johnston tells a simple, yet powerful tale about a boy from a Polish family that was torn apart by the Nazis.
The book is based on the true story of Henry Rosmarin, whose family shared a love of music, particularly Schubert. The unnamed protagonist is a boy who receives a harmonica from his father and learns to play the composer’s music. When the boy is separated from his parents and sent to a concentration camp, he plays his harmonica to find comfort and to sustain hope.
After the camp commandant, a lover of Schubert, learned of the boy’s musical talent, he would summon him to play and reward him with scraps of bread. At first the boy feels ashamed for doing anything for the evil camp overlord, but he learned that other prisoners also found comfort in his music, and that inspired him to continue playing.
Beautifully illustrated by Ron Magellan, The Harmonica achieves the difficult trick of making a Holocaust story a sweet children’s bedtime story.
Sources: Mitchel Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise