The Yellow Bird Sings: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

March 10, 2020 by Geoffrey Zygier
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I seem to have become our esteemed editor’s go-to guy when he needs someone to crit books about the Holocaust.

While not exactly well-paying (unsurprisingly, as it’s a voluntary position), it still could be a lifelong gig as the number of Holocaust-themed books just keep on growing. Some have argued that this carries the danger of trivialising Hitler’s planned extermination of World Jewry. In response, let me say that what still keeps such works both interesting and relevant is the astonishing creative ability of a surprising number of authors today and the very disturbing fact that anti-Jewish feelings (some just as hateful as during the 1930s) still prevail in 2020, three-quarters of a century after the end of World War 11. It’s simple: this situation can only be ignored at great risk.

Judith Rosner is an American author whose day job is teaching college-level philosophy. She has previously published a memoir (If a Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard) about bringing up her deaf daughters. The Yellow Bird Sings is her debut novel and as she has written, both of her published works look at “themes of silence and sound, loneliness and connection”.

The lead characters in The Yellow Bird Sings are the Jewish Róża and her five-year-old daughter Shira, who have found a bleak refuge in a Polish family’s barn in the midst of the German occupation. They have no one else on whom they can rely. Young Shira is a musical prodigy, hearing musical passages in her head, which “take shape and pulse through her, quiet at first, then building in intensity and growing louder.” Their lives, however, are of course dependent on secrecy and silence. Hence Róża resorts to quiet, soothing tales about a little girl and a yellow bird living in a garden constantly under threat, where only the bird may sing.

Jennifer Rosner

It is a fraught existence, complicated by a sexual relationship exacted by their protector. Discovery and death are ever-present threats and Róża decides that separation from her daughter is the best option. A bleached hair Shira is sent to take shelter in a Catholic orphanage. Róża herself hides in a gloomy forest, living like a hunted beast in burrows with sparse, hardly edible vegetation as her only source of sustenance. While Róża knows that Shira will have music in her life, “The mother, too, hears music in her head. The melody is discordant and accusatory. When she covers her ears with her hands, a different tune asserts itself, more painful for its sweet, rocking lyricism. The lullaby tells of a hen who sets out for glasses of tea to bring to her waiting chicks. It is the girl’s favourite, and it is accompanied by the lilt of a kept promise. The hen returns.”

Róża and Shira suffer dreadful physical and mental hardship. Continual fear of capture and anxiety about the future dog every moment. What is the likelihood of their ever reuniting and even if they do, how possible is it that two such terribly damaged people can re-establish their former precious relationship? The tension is at times almost unbearable. While this is an historical novel inspired by the countless true stories of Jewish children hidden during theHolocaust, it is simultaneously a fingernail-biting work of suspense that subtly touches on themes such as the solace that art has the potential to provide, and the strength and determination that love makes available in even the direst of circumstances.

At once heart-warming and heartbreaking, Jennifer Rosner’s accomplished first novel has much to say about duality, the cruelty and the goodness that are so apparently inherent in the human condition. Both horrifying and beautiful, The Yellow Bird Sings is an engaging testimony to what we all are capable of, a book that offers much to reflect on.

The Yellow Bird Sings by Judith Rosner (Picador, 2020)

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