A story of survival

Vesper Stamper has created a heartrending graphic novel about a teenage girl in the Holocaust

A DRAWING from ‘What the Night Sings’ depicting the barracks in Bergen-Belsen (photo credit: VESPER STAMPER)
A DRAWING from ‘What the Night Sings’ depicting the barracks in Bergen-Belsen
(photo credit: VESPER STAMPER)
Gerta was only 14 when the Nazis took her and her father away, and life as she knew it was over. Until that day she did not even know that she was Jewish.
Gerta lived in Würzburg, Germany with Papa and her stepmother Maria, who together filled her world with music. Papa, who played viola in the Würzburg orchestra, was teaching Gerta how to play the instrument. Maria was an opera singer and directed the children’s choir that Gerta joined. She loved to sing and didn’t go to school because she was tutored at home – music was her life and she believed that the changes happening in the world outside her door would never touch her. She felt loved and safe with Papa and Maria, and although she missed her mother, who died in Köln (Cologne) when she was younger, Gerta’s memories of her mother were fading.
When Gerta looked out the window, she could see groups of people with yellow stars on their coats moving through the streets. She knew they were Jews and that the Nazis were making them leave the city, but she did not know what being Jewish meant. And although she felt badly for them, she was thankful that she was safe – after all, she was German.
Or so she thought. Until one night, soldiers barged into their apartment to take Gerta and Papa away.
What the Night Sings is a heartrending story of one young girl’s survival and her courage in rebuilding her life.
In the first part of the novel, titled “Liberation: Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, April 15, 1945,” we meet Gerta at almost 16, after the camp has been liberated by British soldiers. Knowing that Gerta survives makes it a bit easier to read the second part of the novel, where a younger Gerta is thrown into a crowded cattle car with her beloved Papa. It is in the cattle car that Papa decides to tell Gerta everything – why he tried to protect her by not telling her they were Jewish and what really happened to her mother.
Gerta and her Papa are sent to Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Gerta loses her Papa forever. Somehow she survives, and she is liberated from Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war.
After two long years in the camps, she has emerged as a young woman who must rebuild her life without her family. As she struggles to process the horrors and losses of the previous two years, she meets boys her age, including Lev, another survivor, and Micha, the son of a woman who died in her arms in Bergen-Belsen. For the first time, Gerta faces the challenges of love and relationships.
Vesper Stamper, a talented artist as well as a sensitive writer, has crafted a memorable story. It is listed as a book for teens and young adults, but as with many other such books, it can and should be read by adults. The novel does not hide anything about the horrors that Gerta faced in the camps, which are in sharp contrast with the Mozart and Bach that she carries within her heart. While there are passages in the book that are painful to read, just like Gerta the book is filled with hope and the joy that music brings to her life – which is what keeps her strong and helps her survive. What the Night Sings is beautifully illustrated with poignant black-and-white drawings. The book is not only a tribute to the strength of those who, like Gerta, managed to survive the concentration camps despite all odds, but it also a beautiful and unusual book of art. Throughout the nightmare of her two years in concentration camps, Gerta manages to hang onto her father’s viola. Not only does she never lose it, but she never loses the music in her heart.
“Back in my barracks, I crawl, weeping, under the worn blanket and soak my thin pillow with tears. I need my papa. He was my only home. Reaching under the bed, I draw out the viola case and tuck it in next to me. Its black leather covering warms to my body, and I cry myself to sleep, right in the middle of the morning.
My father’s viola.
It is a forest. It is a living tree. It is the heartwood of our family. My father’s viola is over two hundred years old, even older than Germany. It is the color of well-done pastry, shining like apricot glaze. Its fingerboard is molasses and its neck is honey. It is butter and creamy tea, as warm as Papa’s arms, freckled like Papa’s arms, strong and foundational like Papa’s arms.”
Sometimes, not very often, you read a book that has prose so exquisite that you are moved to read aloud to yourself just to savor the words.