This powerful debut novel, beautifully illustrated by the author in somber shades of brown, tells the story of a young Holocaust survivor, a gifted singer who finds herself alone in the world at 17, forced to rebuild her life and find her place in the world. The novel opens with Gerta Rausch lying in a freezing bunk with a dying woman at Bergen-Belsen as Allied soldiers arrive on April 15, 1945, to liberate the camp. It then shifts back to 14-year-old Gerta happily preparing for her concert stage debut, unaware that she and her musician-father are Jewish and living on borrowed time under a false name in Nazi Germany. Gerta and her father are sent first to Thieresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, where her father’s viola helps spare Gerta from the ovens. But she seems to have lost her voice, the lovely mezzosoprano that once had seemed to be her identity, her future.
Stamper is as gifted a writer as she is an artist: As a member of the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, Gerta watches new arrivals being sorted: “They become two rivers, one flowing right, to the shave-tattoo-uniform, one flowing left, to the chimney, evaporating into the air we breathe, raining into the mud we walk in.”
Stemper paints a vivid picture of the displaced persons camp, the limbo-like existence of survivors who have lost everyone and have no place to go. Here Gerta meets Lev, a devout Jew also both scarred by the camps and left an orphan by the Holocaust. Slowly she learns about Judaism, experiencing for the first time the mikvah or ritual bath, and finds herself uncovering hazy memories from earliest childhood of her mother. In the wake of unspeakable evil and unbearable loss, there is hope: there are weddings, with one bride after another wearing a gown made from a parachute.
The evocative ink wash illustrations add another dimension to this already remarkable book, whether it be a still life of the cozy Wurzberg apartment the family has to flee, with teacups on a table, a candle just extinguished, portraits on the wall or a mysterious dark grove of trees, a concert gown billowing from a hanger. Stemper offers an illuminating author’s note at the end, about how she came to write the book, including her own personal experience of having to find a new path after a serious car accident left her unable to continue a career as a musician.