Finding love and music amid darkness: New novel explores a mother and daughter’s bond during the Holocaust

  • Northampton author Jennifer Rosner’s first novel, “The Yellow Bird Sings,” explores the bond between a Jewish mother and daughter who are forced into almost total silence as they hide from the Nazis during World War Two. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Rosner’s debut novel explores the bond between a Jewish mother and daughter who are forced into almost total silence as they hide from the Nazis during World War II. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Rosner’s first book, the memoir “If a Tree Falls,” was about bringing her deaf daughters into the world of hearing — which made the theme of her novel, the need to keep silent, such a dramatic contrast for her. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Rosner’s first book, the memoir “If a Tree Falls,” was about bringing her deaf daughters into the world of hearing — which made the theme of her novel, the need to keep silent, such a dramatic contrast for her. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Rosner says writing about the Holocaust, a well-plumbed subject, is definitely a challenge. She visited Poland and Israel as part of her research for “The Yellow Bird Sings.” STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton author Jennifer Rosner’s first novel, “The Yellow Bird Sings,” explores the bond between a Jewish mother and daughter who are forced into almost total silence as they hide from the Nazis during World War Two. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jennifer Rosner’s memoir “If a Tree Falls” was about bringing her deaf daughters into the world of hearing.

Staff Writer
Published: 3/19/2020 8:49:05 AM

About 10 years ago, Jennifer Rosner published a well-received memoir, “If a Tree Falls,” about her experience raising two daughters who were born deaf, and discovering in the process an unknown history of deafness in her family. The book, which also examined the debate between using hearing devices or sign language to help deaf people communicate, won praise for offering what one reviewer called a “gentle meditation on sound and silence, love and family.”

That same year, while giving a book reading in Florida, Rosner was approached by an elderly Jewish woman who shared a different story about silence: how as a young girl in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, she’d spent 12 months hidden with her mother in an attic, where she’d been forced to be absolutely quiet.

“I was talking about how we were trying to get our children to vocalize using hearing technology, and here’s just the opposite — a mother trying to keep her child hushed because their lives depend on their silence,” said Rosner. “The comparison was just startling to me.”

For Rosner, who lives in Northampton, hearing that account proved to be the beginning of something of an odyssey — one that’s now culminated in her second book, and her first novel, “The Yellow Bird Sings.” It’s the story of a mother, Róza, and her 5-year-old daughter, Shira, who flee from their home in eastern Poland in 1941 after German forces round up Jews in their town, including Róza’s husband and parents. Mother and daughter take refuge in the barn of a Polish farmer, who at first fears letting them stay; he eventually relents but confines them to the hayloft and demands they stay hidden and quiet.

To keep Shira entertained — and silent — Róza whispers a story to her about a girl who lives in an enchanted garden and is forbidden to make a sound. In the tale, a yellow bird befriends the girl, singing whatever sounds she hears in her head and helping the garden’s flowers to boom. In time, the yellow bird comes to seem very real to Shira, and she imagines stroking its feathers as it sits cupped in her hand.

But, no surprise, it’s a struggle for a little girl to remain still, even as she tries to make a game of it: “Shira practices being invisible. She hunches her shoulders, sucks in her stomach, slinks like a cat…. Shira strives to mute the sound of every movement … Yet even as [she] wills herself to silence, her body defies her with a sudden sneeze, an involuntary swallow, the loud crack of her hip ...”

Danger steadily mounts, and try as she might to protect her daughter, Róza eventually will be forced to make a terrible decision: either stay with Shira, or give her a better opportunity to survive apart from her.

“It’s scary to write about the Holocaust because so much has already been said about it,” Rosner said during a recent interview at her home. “You don’t want to get anything wrong. But I was also really interested in those emotional scenes with mother and daughter. I’m focusing on things that go beyond this particular setting…. I wanted people to focus on the emotional heart of the novel.”

“The Yellow Bird Sings,” published by Flatiron Books of New York, a division of MacMillan Publishing, seems to be resonating with readers and foreign publishers alike. It’s being published in the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal, and Poland and Hungary; Rosner had been scheduled to do a reading in London later this month, though the event has now been canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

And Rosner, who visited Poland and Israel as part of the research for her novel, says finally seeing the book come to fruition has been heartening. “Someone asked me why it took so long and I said, ‘I think it’s a very hard subject.’ It could be difficult to write, but at those times I kind of just got sank into the craft of it — you know, let’s just focus on sentences, one at a time.”

The ‘hidden children’

Rosner says she likely wouldn’t have even become a writer — at least not on the subjects she’s since addressed, including in essays and op-eds for publications such as The New York Times and The Massachusetts Review — had her oldest daughter, Sophia, not been born with profound hearing problems.

Rosner was then completing her doctorate in philosophy in California and planned to teach, but she and her husband, William Corwin, moved to the Valley in the early 2000s so that Sophia could attend the former Clarke School for Hearing and Speech in Northampton. (Younger daughter Juliet went there, too, after she was born in 2003, and Corwin eventually became the school’s president for about nine years; the family also previously lived in Leverett.)

“We really needed to process the deafness, and I took up creative writing as a way to try and understand what was happening,” said Rosner, who does teach a five-week philosophy seminar each year at the The Care Center, an alternative education program in Holyoke. “I became very aware of sound — anything my kids might miss — and that began a sort of immersion in sensory acuity that I’d never really had, and which has informed my writing ever since.”

Music has been a constant in their family, as it was in Rosner’s family when she was growing up — her father played the violin, and she long enjoyed singing — and music, especially as a means of connection, also emerges as an important theme in “The Yellow Bird Sings.” Róza is a cellist, her now-vanished husband was a violinist, and Shira appears to have inherited their musical genes.

In one scene in the farmer’s hayloft, Róza, using scraps of paper, shows Shira the basics of how to write music; she break pieces of hay into different sizes to demonstrate the differences between whole, half and quarter notes. Shira in turn recalls the melodies her parents would play at home and “[a] new feverish feeling, this one from excitement and urgency, washes over her…. the music that rushes through her own head can be put on paper!”

The stories Rosner heard from the elderly woman in Florida, and from other Holocaust survivors she subsequently interviewed who had also hidden from the Nazis, are central to her novel as well. Though she says she didn’t use any specific account she heard, “The Yellow Bird Sings” reflects what she calls “the emotional experiences” of these former “hidden children,” many of whom were given fake identities during the war and never reconnected with their parents afterwards, leaving them lost and confused.

“Their pain lingers even 75 years later,” she said. “They feel this hurt at being separated from their parents, and I imagined what their parents might have felt: terrible guilt and even shame in giving them up, even though in their mind they knew they were doing this to give their child a better chance to live.”

To ground her story further, Rosner, with an English-speaking guide, toured some of Poland’s still somewhat wild eastern forests in winter to get a sense of what it might have been like for Jews and other people, such as Polish partisans, to hide outdoors, half-frozen and never far from starvation. She also visited a convent that served as an orphanage during the war; Jewish children were disguised there as Catholics.

“The sensory experience of being in a place where this happened, the feel of a tile floor, the smell of mushroom soup cooking, all of that was very informative,” she said.

The novel also explores (thought not graphically) some of the late-war ugliness that occurred even as the Germans were driven from Poland by the Soviet Army in 1944-45: the widespread rape of women in Poland by Russian troops; the anti-Semitism surviving Jews faced from many Poles, who had also suffered badly in the war; and the near-anarchy that prevailed in the war’s aftermath, with basic infrastructure and governments destroyed, millions of people displaced and children orphaned or lost.

And though she considers “The Yellow Bird Sings” first and foremost the story of the bond between a mother and daughter, Rosner hopes the novel can also serve as an entry point to the Holocaust for younger readers in particular, at a time when anti-Semitism seems to be rising in many countries and World War II and its horrors recede further into history.

“I think we need new Holocaust art as much as ever,” she said. “Look at the success of ‘Jo Jo Rabbit.’ If we can approach this subject in a new way, with new angles, it’s a way to hit new chords and raise consciousness for younger people especially…. It’s so important for things not to be repeated, and that’s true for all atrocities.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Rosner had been scheduled to read from “The Yellow Bird Sings” on March 26 at Amherst Books, but the event has now been canceled. You can read about any rescheduling and find additional information at her website, jennifer-rosner.com.




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