This Holocaust story tells of an old man who weaved carpets on a loom and spent his evening singing to a hurdy-gurdy. His student, the Sparrow, learned at his side. The town in Poland was dark and dismal, all of its trees harvested for kindling. Food and clothes were rationed and even the music was starting to disappear. One day music was removed from the village as soldiers arrived to gather all of the musical instruments and take them away. Everyone had to give up their instruments, but the old man sang one final song before he put his hurdy-gurdy on the pile. And he would not stop singing, even as he was dragged away. That night, the Sparrow returned and took the hurdy-gurdy from the pile and hid it away. Then she too disappeared. It was found years later with a note that spoke of the bravery of both the Wren and the Sparrow and the importance of music in keeping spirits alive in dark times.
Based on the musicians who played in the Lodz Ghetto, a place that housed 230,000 Jewish people in 1940. Only 1000 survived the Holocaust that followed. Music was a part of their life and that celebration of music as a way of expressing feelings that could not be voiced is very clear in this picture book. Lewis writes with intense beauty in this book, the strong feelings showing in his sentences such as “The town shriveled up like a rose without rain.” And the image of “the gift of music soon dwindled to a sigh.” The entire book sings with prose like this, adding its own music to the story.
The illustrations by Nayberg, a native of Ukraine, show the darkness of the times. The illustrations swim with the colors of war, khaki ground and the gray of despair. When the instrument and music are present though, there is a glow and a warmth that shines in the illustration visually capturing the impact of the music on people around.
This allegorical tale captures the impact of the Nazi regime in Poland and elsewhere, offering a lesson about the power of music to carry hope in the darkest of times. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Kar-Ben.