The Harmonica is a moving story of a young boy who is separated from his family, sent to a different concentration camp in Poland, 1939. The story begins in Poland, with a family who is drawn together by their love and celebration of music. The narrator cannot remember his parents’ faces, but he remembers the songs and the love they shared. He wished for a piano, “his heart’s desire.” He dreamed of playing Schubert, but “like the composer, we were poor/ as pigeons.” Yet one day his father brought home a special gift – a harmonica. This harmonica brought joy, music and dancing into their home, and Henry loved to play.
But soon Henry is separated from his family when the Nazis arrive, shattering the dreams of the Jews in Poland.
I was sent
to a concentration camp, swallowed,
dreams and all, down the dark
Barefoot, I labored alongside others,
all of us dull-eyed bags
of bones, digging a road through snow.
Henry is left with only his harmonica to remind his of happier times. He plays the harmonica, and the commanding officer orders him to play again, and again, each night rewarding him with bread after his harmonica concerts of Schubert. This brings even more angst to Henry, who sees the dichotomy of a man who brings brutality and misery to the Jews, yet loves the beautiful music of Schubert. Henry despises himself until another prisoner thanks him, as they too listen to the music every night, bringing a small piece of beauty to the darkness of the camp. So Henry continues to play, thinking of his parents and the other prisoners, who may have hope through music. Henry’s story ends with “I played for them – with all my heart.”
The illustrations (by Ron Mazellan) serve to convey the mood and tone of the story. When the Nazis arrive, the darkness is felt across the page, first with soldiers and guns outside a building, despondent faces in a window above, worried about their fate. The next page is a bleak picture, behind the soldier, arm outstretched, people huddled in trains about to depart. The concentration camp is dark, stripes of the imprisoned people and the tiny light on Henry’s face. The final page shows the shadow of the commander, sitting low in his chair with a whip in hand, while Henry, with light in his face and the faces of his parents in his mind, plays the music of Schubert on his silver harmonica. The words and language will mesmerize the reader, bringing to life the simple joys of music found in the sadness and despair of a concentration camp. Johnston and Mazellan bring beauty and depth to this story, based on the true story of Holocaust survivor Henry Rosmarin.
More Resources and Information about Henry Rosmarin
LA Times article (August 31, 2001) “Henry Rasmarin: Music Helped Him Survive Holocaust”