Exile Music: A Jewish family's journey from Vienna to Bolivia

Book Review: Exile Music, by Jennifer Steil.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performs during the Summer Night Concert in September. One of the novel’s main characters played for the orchestra before Austria was taken over by the Nazis.  (photo credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performs during the Summer Night Concert in September. One of the novel’s main characters played for the orchestra before Austria was taken over by the Nazis.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)
It didn’t help that I had read so many Holocaust memoirs and novels, several about Jews living in Vienna during the Nazi nightmare. Exile Music – at least until the family, whose experiences are chronicled in this novel, is finally able to immigrate to another country – was still scary for me, very difficult to read.
I blame my father. He was from Vienna and had a love-hate relationship with that city. It was simple: Loved Vienna, hated the Viennese.
On the evening of the day that German troops marched into Austria and the Nazis took control, they were already arresting Jewish men, he had told me. As most Viennese Jews lived among Christians and not in a ghetto, many Viennese must have betrayed their Jewish neighbors to the authorities. The people of Vienna were zealous Nazis – and antisemites – he had insisted.
And, more or less, that is the picture that author Jennifer Steil paints.
But the book is about so much more than Vienna and the Nazis. After much personal abuse and turmoil, Orly, the daughter and protagonist of the novel, and her family finally escape. I was surprised that such an assimilated family would use a Hebrew name. Usually written Orli, in Hebrew the name means “my light.” Only late in the book did I discover that Orly is short for Orlanthe, a Teutonic name meaning “renowned fame.”
They landed, however, in one of the world’s most unlikely and unsuitable destinations for such a cultured husband and wife (he played the viola in the Viennese Philharmonic Symphony and she sang in the opera). La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, was bereft of what most Europeans would consider culture. No symphony, no opera, no great works of architecture, no museums. In short, none of the accouterments that Westerners would say are necessary for a civilized life.
But there was one element too familiar to that Viennese family and their fellow Jewish refugees: racism. The Indians living among the Bolivians of Spanish descent were the country’s Jews.
“There were different rules for Indians. If they had Indian names... they were simply not admitted to school. If the girls wore the traditional clothes... they were not admitted to school. Once I asked Nayra to come to the movies with us and she said she was not allowed... ‘Bolivia does not allow us.’ And I thought, ‘Just as Austria did not allow me.’ The connections were everywhere.
“The... native populations were not allowed in the front seats of the tram. Indian children were expected to work, not to study and read.”
Beyond discrimination, this book reveals the cost of the Holocaust beyond the six million murdered, for it destroyed even many of those who survived.
Orly’s Aunt Thekla was a shadow of the person she remembered from Vienna. Thekla had lost her entire family – her parents, her husband, her children.
“She never smiled, never asked questions. She sat at the table and stared at us. She was like a child, needing to be led from room to room and told what to do. Any sort of volition had vanished. Or rather, had been erased.”
Exile Music is a story of love and vengeance. It also shows how a family can survive and in some ways thrive in a most unlikely, even hostile, environment. And it is a coming-of-age story in which a young woman must balance competing loves and lifestyles.
Somehow, the author’s descriptions of life in 1930s Vienna and postwar La Paz ring true, even if the author could not rely on personal experience in either case. The pace of the book is fast-moving, and Steil presents readers with some mostly happy surprises.
This is one of the best novels I have read in a long time. It is highly recommended, even if your family comes from Vienna.

The writer is a former editor at
The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, is slated to be published by Chickadee Prince Books early next year.

EXILE MUSIC
By Jennifer Steil
Penguin-Random House
409 pages; $27