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When the Nazis invaded Poland, a family is split apart. The parents are sent to one concentration camp, their son to another. Only his father's gift, a harmonica, keeps the boy's hopes alive and, miraculously, ensures his survival.
Tony Johnston's powerful story, inspired by the life of a Holocaust survivor, is enhanced by Ron Mazellan's luminous artwork.
- The Harmonica was inspired by a true story. Henryk Rosmaryn grew up in Czeladz, Poland. In 1939 the Germans invaded his homeland. Henryk was taken to Dyhrenfurth concentration camp where, with the help of the harmonica that his father had taught him to play, he survived the hardship and sorrow of that prison.
After the war he came to the United States and changed his name to Henry Rosmarin. Again with the aid of his harmonica, he shared his wartime experiences with others, especially teenagers, in the hope that they might bring about a better future. Although he died in 2001, his is an ongoing story of the power of music and the strength of the human heart.
— Tony Johnston
- 2004 Notable Children's Book of Jewish Content
- AJL Sydney Taylor Notable Books for Older Readers
- Independent Book Award Finalist (Picture Book 7+)
- IRA/CBC Children's Choices
- Jewish Stars: Recommended Books w/Jewish Themes
- National Jewish Book Award finalist
- Storytelling World Award -- Honor Title
Based on a true survivor story, this powerful picture book is yet another astonishing Holocaust account for discussion. A Polish Jewish child, blissfully happy with his loving parents, gets a harmonica from his coal-miner father and learns to play Schubert while his parents dance. The realistic mixed-media, double-page illustrations contrast that glowing warmth of home with the darkness that comes when Nazi soldiers break down the door, separate the boy from his family, and send him to the camps. His harmonica becomes his solace. The commandant hears about the child's playing. He orders the boy to play Schubert and throws him bread. In the end, however, the music does nothing to humanize the brutal Nazis. In fact, one unforgettable picture shows the commandant blissfully listening to the music, one hand over his heart and the other holding a whip. The home memories are idyllic, but there's absolutely no sentimentality about the child's survival. Johnston gives children and grown-ups lots to talk about here- for example, Can a person be both sensitive and cruel?
Set in WWII Poland and inspired by a true story of a Jewish family, Johnston's (Uncle Rain Cloud) stirring tale opens on a wistful note: "I cannot remember/my father's face,/or my mother's,/but I remember their love,/warm and enfolding/as a song." Mazellan's lifelike, earth-toned mixed-media paintings reveal a boy and his parents, first huddled together over a book, then singing together, then listening to the music of Schubert coming from a neighbor's gramophone. When his father returns from his job in a coal mine with a harmonica and gives it to the boy, his son practices on it until he can play Schubert. Meanwhile, "Somewhere outside, a war/was raging. But it was far away-/a bad dream- leaving us untouched." But not for long. The tenor of the narrative changes abruptly as Mazellan depicts Nazi soldiers banging on the door; the family is separated and the boy is sent to a concentration camp. When the commandant insists the lad play his harmonica for him each night, the boy cannot imagine how someone so cruel could appreciate the beauty of Schubert's music and is disgusted to perform it for him. But he finds solace in the realization that his playing also reaches his fellow prisoners, "who might hear the notes/and be lifted, like flights/of birds." The illustrator makes an affecting children's book debut, choosing images that communicate the story's pathos while sparing the audience many of the setting's horrors.
Inspired by the story of a Holocaust survivor, this exquisite picture book is poignant and powerful. Simple sentences charged with delicate word choices briefly recount the first-person narration of a poor but happy boy and his parents in Poland who were captured, split up, and taken to concentration camps. The youngster manages to take with him the harmonica his father gave him, on which he plays Schubert. The commandant of the camp learns of his talents and orders him to, "Play, Jew!" The boy complies - and finds out that the whole camp hears him and takes heart from the music. The mixed-media illustrations change from a warm to cold palette to underscore the move from home to camp. While the story is set in World War II, the theme is broader, and makes a case for the power of music/art to support and sustain humanity. There is an appended note about the life of Henryk Rosmaryn.
Then the Nazis came.
The book is based on the true story of a man who lived in Poland and played harmonica all his life until he died in the United States in 2001.
Indiana graphic artist Ron Mazellan, illustrating his first children's book, enhances the beautifully written Holocaust story with dark-toned, mixed media illustrations on illustration board.
Geared for older children eight and up, the book is definitely intense and grim, but it avoids scenes which would be disturbing to young readers, instead focusing on the boy and the harmonica.
- By author: Tony Johnston Illustrated by: Ron Mazellan
- ISBN: 978-1-57091-489-8
- Binding Information: Paperback
- Ages: 7 - 12