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This tragic but beautiful novella follows Simon Laks’ experiences in Auschwitz as he arrived, was inducted into the orchestra by chance, was made the conductor, then was released when the Germans were defeated. 

In the preface Simon Laks acknowledges that thousands of books have already been written about the Holocaust, and that another one isn’t going to give us any deeper knowledge of the sheer scale and horror of the atrocity. 

But after WWII, in addition to feeling survivor’s guilt when people asked him how he had survived when so many had perished, he also remarked on listeners’ constant bewilderment to learn that the Germans had an orchestra in Auschwitz. The implied confusion was: how could a group exterminating millions of people enjoy such a human thing as music, to the point of creating an orchestra made up of the race being exterminated? This question is at the heart of Laks’ story and gave him the courage to share what had happened to him. Also, being in the orchestra was a privileged role in Auschwitz and gave him windows into all aspects of the camp’s functioning, a rare thing. You see the inner workings of the Nazi-military machine. 

If you are under 40, you will likely live to see the last Holocaust survivor die (there’s about 50,000 left). Then all we will have left are their testimonies. If you have never read a story about the Holocaust, you are missing an essential part of humanity’s history. We cannot forget how easily hate and prejudice can turn into justified torture and unspeakable violence. We cannot underestimate the evil mix of subservience to authority and racism.

As dark and horrifying as this book is, there is a beautiful friendship between Simon Laks and a man named André, who saved his life. Simon would name his son André. And it is this son André, a French philosophy professor, who will write an afterword for this book. 

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