Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2022

The Yellow Bird Sings, by Jennifer Rosner

During the lockdowns, in an effort to support my favourite booksellers, I bought a whole lot of (mostly Australian) books that I wouldn’t normally buy.  I’m gradually working my way through them and sad to say, quite a few were very quickly abandoned and sent off for recycling.  Commercial fiction is what it is, and I don’t regret my purchases because booksellers need to sell enough of what’s popular in order to be able to stock less profitable titles. Plus, as with cafés and restaurants, booksellers can’t afford to be left with unsaleable stock… commercial fiction needs to be sold when it’s newly released before along comes The Next Big Thing.

The Yellow Bird Sings by US author Jennifer Rosner was one of these lockdown books, purchased in June 2020.  Set in Poland in 1941, it’s a story of flight from the Nazi genocide, so since there’s some tawdry Holocaust fiction around at the moment, I set my bar by the generally favourable reviews in the Jewish Chronicle and by the US Jewish Book Council.

Their reviews suggest that people like it because it is what it promises to be, a powerfully gripping and deeply moving novel about the unbreakable bond between parent and child and the triumph of humanity and hope even in the darkest circumstances.  It’s very well written and it doesn’t sanitise the fact that the Nazis had plenty of anti-Semitic support in Poland, whatever they may be saying about that now.  Even the ‘good’ Poles who give refuge to Róza and Shira in their barn are hostile at first, and have dubious motives for allowing them to stay: the farmer Henryk rapes Róza every day.

Notwithstanding that, it’s still Holocaust Lite. The reality of the Holocaust was that the unbreakable bond between parent and child was broken for millions of parents and children.  If you follow the Twitter feed of the Auschwitz Museum as I do, you see the faces of parents and children who perished in the Holocaust every day.  Some days, it’s almost unbearable to witness this photographic record of the people who were murdered…

From today’s @AuschwitzMuseum Twitter feed, this little girl is Iboja Berger.  By coincidence, she was interested in music just like Shira is, in Rosner’s novel.

Image

14 May 1936 | A Hungarian Jewish girl, Iboja Berger, was born in Mohács. In 1944 she was deported to #Auschwitz and murdered in a gas chamber. Source for text & photo @AuschwitzMuseum 14 May 2022

There was no triumph of humanity and hope even in the darkest circumstances for millions of Jewish parents and children.  There was no sentimental ending for them at all.  Yes, there were survivors, and there were stories of incredible luck, and there were reunions that defied the displacement that amplified the losses in the chaos of the postwar period.  Rosner says in the Author’s Note that the catalyst for writing this book, presumably with the best of intentions, was that she met a survivor who’d been hidden in an attic as a child and had had to be silent all the time.  She subsequently met others with the same experience and soon found herself immersed in a new project involving silence, separation, loss, and, above all, love. 

But survival was not the reality for most people caught up in the evil of Nazi Germany.  What bothers me about this genre of ‘Holocaust survivor’ novels is that they convey the implicit message that enough determination and love could make the difference, and that’s a false view of history.  It glosses over how ruthlessly efficient the Nazis were and how widespread it was for populations to turn away, to refuse to help and to denounce hidden Jews.  Anne Frank was hidden in an attic and her story, told in her own words, is also about silence, separation, loss, and, above all, love.  She didn’t survive.

Survival was a matter of luck.

The Jewish Chronicle explores the current fictionalising-of-Auschwitz publishing phenomenon in this article. Even-handed, the article offers a continuum of opinions, from those who are ‘comfortable’ with it, and those who are very angry about it.  I read The Yellow Bird Sings because I’m somewhere in the middle: I believe that literature can have an educative function and offer insights about the Holocaust, just as it can about any other aspect of history.

I’d like to be able to recommend novels which succeed in doing this, but The Yellow Bird Sings wouldn’t be on my list.

Author: Jennifer Rosner
Title: The Yellow Bird Sings
Publisher: Picador, 2020
ISBN: 9781529032437, pbk., 294 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Bookstore $29.99

 


Responses

  1. Very interesting post Lisa – I do find myself concerned about the fictionalisation of something like the Holocaust. Unless the book is does well, and realistically, the risk of trivialising the whole thing is massive. I’ve tended to keep away from most of this kind of book for that reason.

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    • I think that article at the Jewish Chronicle is very good indeed. It points out that hideous irony that until this genre arrived, that literary agent who’s quoted, couldn’t find publishers for books about the Holocaust because no one was interested in it. Now the genre is littered with bestsellers. And then you read on and see what the Disneyfication of the Holocaust has done and it makes you feel sick.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yours is an interesting and decidedly interesting take on life, which comes through in your choice of books. You are rather adept at expressing why you “like” something you read. I’m trying to say I enjoy your reviews. Not doing a great job of it. Sorry. :)

    I am still enjoying my Historic Heston. It it the heaviest book I own. Just lifting it is a workout in and of itself. LOL. My thighs go numb from its weight, so can only read a chapter or two at a time.

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    • Hello again Bobbie Jean:)
      I hadn’t realised that my ‘take on life’ was coming through in my choice of books… I’m really very ordinary!

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  3. I read the book some time ago and was a bit seduced by the ‘romantic’ ideas of love and music. But like you, I have a distaste for fictionalising the horrors of what ordinary people went through and exploiting them for a ‘good story’. As you know, my parents were Holocaust survivors and were lucky to survive, but I’m uncomfortable with books which make the survivor a hero or smarter or more determined than others who perished. (BTW I’m no relation to the author of this book – I checked!)

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    • Hi Anna, we both know who I mean when I mention the profound sense of distaste that I have for a certain author’s exploitation of the Holocaust and how that has spawned this genre of books. The thing is, thinking of End of the Night Girl by Amy Matthews, imaginative writing about the Holocaust can be enlightening and sensitive. (See https://anzlitlovers.com/2011/08/07/end-of-the-night-girl-by-amy-matthews/).
      But really there is no substitute for reading authentic memoirs such as Sister, Sister, the book you wrote, and which I still remember so vividly.

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      • Thanks Lisa, I’ll check out End of the Night Girl.

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  4. I can’t read any of the books about the Holocaust anymore. After reading Life and Fate, the Russian/German account of the war including detailed information of the holocaust that was enough. Reading more doesn’t change the way it was and how I feel about how just awful it all was and now we repeat more in the current news. I think a time comes when one thinks I can’t spend the rest of my life revisiting such terror and horrific tales. I now know the history, I’d like to see the younger people learn from it and take what needs to be known from these events.

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    • I hear you, Pam. What worries me is that perhaps young people are reading these popular novels and getting the wrong idea.

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