Cover image for Playing for the commandant
Playing for the commandant
Zail, Suzy, 1966- , author.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
Somerville, Massachusetts : Candlewick Press, 2014.

© 2012
Physical Description:
245 pages ; 21 cm
A young Jewish pianist at Auschwitz, desperate to save her family, is chosen to play at the camp commandant's house. How could she know she would fall in love with the wrong boy?
Reading Level:
Young Adult.

HL 700 Lexile.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 4.9 8.0 170758.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
Y FICTION Young Adult Fiction Popular Materials-Young Adult
Y FICTION Young Adult Fiction Young Adult
Y FICTION Young Adult Fiction Open Shelf

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A young Jewish pianist at Auschwitz, desperate to save her family, is chosen to play at the camp commandant's house. How could she know she would fall in love with the wrong boy?

"Look after each other . . . and get home safe. And when you do, tell everyone what you saw and what they did to us."
These are Hanna's father's parting words to her and her sister when their family is separated at the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Her father's words -- and a black C-sharp piano key hidden away in the folds of her dress -- are all that she has left to remind her of life before. Before, Hanna was going to be a famous concert pianist. She was going to wear her yellow dress to a dance. And she was going to dance with a boy. But then the Nazis came. Now it is up to Hanna to do all she can to keep her mother and sister alive, even if that means playing piano for the commandant and his guests. Staying alive isn't supposed to include falling in love with the commandant's son. But Karl Jager is beautiful, and his aloofness belies a secret. And war makes you do dangerous things.

Author Notes

Suzy Zail was born in 1966 in Melbourne, and has worked as a solicitor specialising in litigation. After the birth of her first child, Suzy left the law to concentrate on writing. Suzy has written for magazines, and is the author of award-winning children¿s books. Her children¿s fiction has been published in Australia, Canada, and the United States.

In 2015 her title, The Wrong Boy, was one of four books by Australian authors selected for the United States Board of Books for Young People (USBBY) list of Outstanding International Books for children and young adults.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Hanna, 15, is a talented pianist living in Hungary in 1944, until the SS storms the ghetto and takes her and her family to Birkenau. The camp is a horror, but Hanna and her sister manage to survive. When word gets out that Hanna is a gifted musician, she is selected to play piano daily in the commandant's drawing room. She struggles with deep feelings of guilt, not only because she receives special treatment but also because she is entertaining the sadistic man responsible for the atrocities she sees every day. But music and a burgeoning forbidden romance with the commandant's son are the only things that make her feel human, and they end up being the keys to her survival. Zail's story is as gut-wrenching as any Holocaust tale, particularly when, upon their liberation by Russian troops, Hanna discovers that her own dehumanizing experiences in the labor camp were nothing compared to the barbarity that occurred in the extermination camps. The haunting, matter-of-fact tone of Hanna's story will likely resonate with teens learning about the Holocaust.--Hunter, Sarah Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

The world of 15-year-old Hanna Mendel-a Jewish Hungarian concert pianist in training who longs to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Clara Schumann-turns menacing when Hungary falls to Germany in 1944. New laws require Jews there to wear yellow stars on their clothes and live in ghettos, and, before long, she, along with many others, is sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Zail, whose memoir The Tattooed Flower recounted how her father survived the Holocaust, poignantly conveys Hanna's mounting losses-at first, her home, piano, suitcase, and clothes; then, when men are separated from women in the camp, her father; and even her hair and her name. Strengthened by Erika, her spirited sister, Hanna holds onto her one remaining possession: a black C-sharp piano key, and the hope it represents. Although she witnesses much cruelty and degradation, Hanna also discovers courage, integrity, and ingenuity in surprising ways; in particular, through Karl, the quiet, musical son of the cruel commandant for whom Hanna plays piano, who calls her "by my name, not my number." An elegant, disturbing portrait of one of history's bleakest moments, offset by the subversive power of love. Ages 12-up. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

School Library Journal Review

Gr 8 Up-It's 1944, and 15-year-old pianist Hanna and her family have been taken from their Hungarian Jewish ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Having lied about her age, Hanna is selected to play piano for the camp leader, or commandant, a job she hopes will help her save her mother and sister. Captain Jager's casual cruelty contrasts with his son Karl's sensitive compassion, and soon Hanna and Karl develop a secret attraction. The teen feels like a traitor for liking Karl, her fellow prisoners despise her for cooperating with the commandant, and Russian liberators are approaching-and with them, truths that Hanna has refused to acknowledge. An oddly adult voice (Hanna says that playing a duet is "like taking a lover") gives way to more typical teenage reactions as the story progresses, but questionable historical accuracies persist: while the protagonist technically could have had a bat mitzvah, studied algebra, and casually carried a thermos, these seem unlikely. Musical details add interest, but light teen romance seems out of place in a Holocaust narrative, and overall the simplistic writing style tells rather than shows ("I learned that to care was weak and brutality a virtue in this upside-down world"). Zail's father survived the Holocaust and her desire to honor him is noble, but recent titles such as Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion, 2013) and Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman (HarperCollins, 2014) offer more nuanced, sophisticated treatments. An additional purchase for collections seeking exhaustive Holocaust coverage.-Jill Ratzan, I. L. Peretz Community Jewish School, Somerset, NJ (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.