Book Review | Illustrated Novel Expands Holocaust Story


What the Night Sings

Vesper Stamper

When author/illustrator Vesper Stamper was growing up in New York City, she didn’t know anything about the Holocaust. The persecution of the Jewish people simply wasn’t mentioned in her family home. Reading her illustrated novel What the Night Sings makes that hard to believe.

Vesper’s fictional tale of teenage musician Gerta Rausch, who is taken from her home in Germany to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and finally Bergen-Belsen, is rendered with striking realism. It’s not just the meticulous details of life in the camp that makes the book feel so authentic; it’s the way Stamper renders Gerta’s interior life, as well as the emotions of the other characters.

The book begins with liberation at Bergen-Belsen, then cycles back into Gerta’s past, gradually answering questions about who she is. It describes her life as a young girl in
Germany, the daughter of a Jewish widower musician. Her stepmother is not Jewish and, for a time, the family manages to pass themselves off as German with fake paperwork.

When she and her father are finally taken, Gerta doesn’t know if her stepmother has betrayed her. But Gerta is lucky: She’s a violist, so she is incorporated into the camps’ orchestras, which saves her life.

Because she is a teenage girl, Gerta goes through many adolescent rites of passage in the camps, including first love — and first betrayal. As in so many of the best camp accounts, Stamper effectively conveys the strange juxtaposition of the unremarkable everyday with moments of shocking depravity.

Though Stamper went to school for illustration, she’s remarkably deft with text. When Gerta describes her father’s viola, for instance, the only item that she has managed to preserve from her old life, she summons images of all the things that elude her in her current circumstances:

“It is the color of well-done pastry, shining like apricot glaze. Its fingerboard is molasses and its neck is honey. It is butter and creamy tea, as warm as Papa’s arms, freckled like Papa’s arms, strong and foundational as Papa’s arms. … It is the distant forest voice calling its child home at twilight. It soothes fevers and melts like a lozenge over the throat. It is a blanket that warms but never stifles.”

While the writing and structure of the novel are both compelling, they are significantly enhanced by Stamper’s lovely monochromatic illustrations.
Prior to publishing this book, Stamper had been both an artist and a touring musician. After being rear-ended by a texting driver, however, she was left with one arm mostly paralyzed, which ended her musical career.

So she went on to a master’s program in illustration, which is where the original concepts for this book were created. Though she tried making the images through printmaking, it proved too difficult for her arm, so she switched over to ink wash to “better convey the delicacy of a love story,” she writes in an author’s note. “I had always worked in very bright colors, but working in black and white helped me to focus on the most important elements of the paintings — emotion, light, and silhouette — without getting caught up in the color decisions.”

The choice paid off, as the images, even small incidental sketches of a plate and cup, embroider the text and amplify the impact of the story.

To be sure, there is no shortage of Holocaust books and movies, and for many of us a certain degree of fatigue may have set in. But What the Night Sings is different, as it incorporates a vision of Gerta’s life before the camps, during and, most significantly, afterward, when she is a refugee. This piece of the story — what happened during the years between liberation and successful immigration — is frequently left out, and it couldn’t be more timely.

Though this book is marketed to young adults, it’s a powerful read for people of any age. There is still more to learn and understand, it turns out, about this tragic time in our communal history.


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