By – July 16, 2020

What did Holo­caust sur­vivors go through on a dai­ly basis in order to stay alive, and how did these expe­ri­ences shape their con­scious­ness? Jen­nifer Rosner’s debut nov­el attempts to answer these ques­tions as it fol­lows Roza and her young daugh­ter, Shi­ra, who flee the Nazis dur­ing World War II.

The first half of the book is con­fined to a barn in Poland where the moth­er and daugh­ter have hid­den out of des­per­a­tion — only to be dis­cov­ered by the own­ers, a hus­band and wife. The cou­ple has agreed, begrudg­ing­ly, to shel­ter Roza and Shi­ra, though not pure­ly out of kind­ness; the hosts quick­ly begin to feel enti­tled to favors in return for their sac­ri­fice. Con­di­tions wors­en by the day, and Roza faces the con­stant threat of betray­al by their hosts, who are them­selves vic­tims of cir­cum­stance. Although Roza and Shi­ra must stay silent at all times to avoid attract­ing atten­tion, they seek hope in mem­o­ries, which they keep alive to the extent that they can, and in their shared love of music.

Even­tu­al­ly, moth­er and daugh­ter are advised to depart on sep­a­rate paths — Shi­ra is sent to a con­vent orphan­age, while Roza is left to fend for her­self in the woods. What fol­lows in the sec­ond half of the nov­el is a por­tray­al of their par­al­lel sur­vival jour­neys, as Roza makes her way to safe­ty and com­mu­ni­ty, and Shi­ra adapts to new sur­round­ings and peo­ple. Although Shi­ra is stripped of parts of her iden­ti­ty and fam­i­ly, she holds onto her pas­sion for music, and her tal­ent is nur­tured by new care­tak­ers who rec­og­nize her pre­co­cious­ness. While she can­not ful­ly under­stand or accept the events unfold­ing around her — or the motives behind her per­se­cu­tion — her com­mit­ment to the vio­lin car­ries her through the most dif­fi­cult times.

Ros­ner brings to light some of the less­er-acknowl­edged aspects of sur­vivor psy­chol­o­gy. One of these is the bur­den of guilt sur­vivors often car­ried with them after being forced to leave loved ones behind. Rosner’s char­ac­ters are also com­plex and nuanced, and fre­quent­ly con­tra­dict them­selves; they can­not be judged as entire­ly good or bad. Dur­ing the Holo­caust, Ros­ner demon­strates, vic­tims had no moral play­books to refer to; prag­ma­tism was pit­ted against right­eous­ness. Both Roza and daugh­ter are forced to find foot­ing in real­i­ties that have been thrust upon them. The nov­el is well tex­tured, and there’s an imme­di­a­cy to the sto­ry that makes it pos­si­ble for read­ers to empathize with the char­ac­ters as they endure var­i­ous shades of strug­gle to sur­vive — from hunger and dis­com­fort to men­tal anguish, con­fu­sion, and denial.

While the sto­ry feels at times famil­iar, and the prose can lose momen­tum with pre­dictable pac­ing and con­ven­tions, it doesn’t opt for a pre­dictable con­clu­sion. Instead, it gives a real­is­tic but opti­mistic depic­tion of the bur­dens sur­vivors car­ried after the war’s con­clu­sion. When the war end­ed, new strug­gles of post­war adap­ta­tion took their place. Nev­er­the­less, Ros­ner shows, life does go on — and are there many art forms more life-affirm­ing than music? The Yel­low Bird Sings is a wel­come addi­tion to the lit­er­a­ture of the Holocaust.

Discussion Questions

Book Club

Inspired by sto­ries of hid­den chil­dren dur­ing the Holo­caust, The Yel­low Bird Sings by Jen­nifer Ros­ner is the heartrend­ing sto­ry of the wid­owed Roza and her daugh­ter Shi­ra on the run in Nazi occu­pied Poland. As they hide in a neigh­bor’s barn, Roza invents a mag­i­cal gar­den and a yel­low bird to help keep Shi­ra occu­pied and qui­et. Shi­ra, a musi­cal prodi­gy, hears the bird sing in her mind and is able to remain silent. Through Ros­ner’s lyri­cal prose, the read­er is also able to sense the yel­low bird’s music in the midst of the hor­ror hap­pen­ing all around. When it is no longer safe in the barn, Roza faces an unimag­in­able dilem­ma. She must send Shi­ra away to live with nuns to keep her safe. From a con­vent deep with­in the coun­try to time with par­ti­sans in the woods, one fol­lows the moth­er and daughter’s par­al­lel sto­ries and feels their unbreak­able bond. Both heart­break­ing and hope­ful, this is a book to read a sec­ond time.

Debut Fic­tion

Nobody needs us to declare the Holo­caust a most dif­fi­cult sub­ject to write about. How to write it in a new way? How to write it at all? All that fear and evil and all that sor­row — this is why Adorno declared, After Auschwitz poet­ry is bar­barism.” Yet The Yel­low Bird Sings is a tri­umph, thanks to the beau­ti­ful strange­ness in its prose, and the ele­gant sim­plic­i­ty of its plot.-

Ros­ner’s five-year-old Shi­ra is a musi­cal genius who can make no sounds. She and her moth­er are Jews in hid­ing. (Inci­den­tal­ly, The Yel­low Bird Sings was the per­fect nov­el to read in lock­down, liv­ing one’s own clois­tered life, almost nev­er creep­ing out, feel­ing the walls of one’s own home get taller and thick­er. Noth­ing obvi­at­ed our Amer­i­can self-pity like read­ing about peo­ple cow­er­ing under a hay bale, speak­ing only in whis­pers, fear­ing death.)

The book has been called Room meets Schindler’s List. It has also been com­pared to A Qui­et Place. But regard­less of where Ros­ner may have found inspi­ra­tion, none of those antecedents has the mag­ic of the tale Shi­ra’s moth­er spins — that of a lit­tle girl and a yel­low bird in an enchant­ed, dan­ger­ous gar­den; only the bird is allowed to sing.

And, once the sto­ry makes its sur­prise swerves, once we fol­low Shi­ra and her moth­er down their sep­a­rate paths — con­nect­ed only by that bird — the bril­liance of the idea and its exe­cu­tion set this work apart from any we have encoun­tered before. It’s a book that one will nev­er forget.