Maria Angels Anglada was an important 20th century Catalan novelist. The Violin of Auschwitz was published to great acclaim in Europe in 1994 but Martha Tennent’s translation is only recently available in this country. The slim book recounts a fictional incident in the Nazi prison camp—wholly imagined. Each chapter opens with excerpts from actual SS documentation of the horrors in the camp. The writing is lovely, simple and graceful; the setting and the incidents are raw and terrible.
A half century after the war, a violinist plays a remarkable instrument at a Krakow chamber concert. When a musician from the West asks her about the violin she hesitates to tell him its provenance, her eyes filled with sorrow. But eventually she shares a written document with him that reveals the story of the beautiful handcrafted instrument.
In Auschwitz, a Jewish luthier is barely surviving the forced labor, cruel beatings and punishments, deliberate degradation and an almost total lack of food. One night, in the camp commander’s house, a violin played for a party by a prisoner cracks and the luthier, Daniel, rushes to defend the man and says he can fix the instrument. His ill-considered move saves the violinist and earns Daniel a workshop with luthier’s tools and fine wood, probably looted from a ghetto. He repairs the violin successfully and is then commanded to make a Stradivarius-style violin for the brutal commander, who plays decently.
Daniel finds out that a bet has been placed on his head—if he finishes an acceptable instrument in a certain time period, the torturous camp doctor owes the commander a case of fine burgundy. If he fails on either score, the commander hands Daniel over to the doctor. The daily labor over his workbench, wood and tools transports Daniel out of the camp to a remembered-imagined place where he can be himself and survive. The imminent threat of torture and death haunts him. The conditions he lives under continue to imperil his life and make him almost too weak to work.
The Violin of Auschwitz blends atrocity with ecstasy. Daily life in a death camp was designed to extinguish the will to live and cruelty is the quotidian. Shaping a violin from wood, glue and painstaking labor is skilled work that restores Daniel’s damaged sense of his own worth and humanity. The cold lists describing numbers of bullets used to kill a woman for stealing a turnip, regulations for different degrees of punishment and incarceration, and tonnage and types of clothing salvaged from men, women and child prisoners is disgusting and macabre.
Anglada uses words like pure musical notes to tell the story of a world imploded by evil and redeemed by mercy and virtuosity. It fades slowly when you’ve closed the book, like the final notes of a solo that hang in the air briefly before the applause.
The Violin of Auschwitz: A Novel Maria Angels Anglada | Bantam Books 2010