Review: Playing for the Commandant by Suzy Zail

Publisher: Candlewick Press (October 14, 2014)
Hardcover: 256 pages
Add on: Goodreads
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

A young Jewish pianist at Auschwitz, desperate to save her family, is chosen to play at the camp commandant’s house. How could she know she would fall in love with the wrong boy?

These are Hanna’s father’s parting words to her and her sister when their family is separated at the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Her father’s words — and a black C-sharp piano key hidden away in the folds of her dress — are all that she has left to remind her of life before. Before, Hanna was going to be a famous concert pianist. She was going to wear her yellow dress to a dance. And she was going to dance with a boy. But then the Nazis came. Now it is up to Hanna to do all she can to keep her mother and sister alive, even if that means playing piano for the commandant and his guests. Staying alive isn’t supposed to include falling in love with the commandant’s son. But Karl Jager is beautiful, and his aloofness belies a secret. And war makes you do dangerous things.


I was intrigued by the summary for Playing for the Commandant because if there’s anything I enjoy about historical fiction is the combination of classical music and romance (that and I also enjoy reading WWII fiction). Some WWII fiction tone down the events of what was happening in Europe, but Playing for the Commandant doesn’t do that. The author’s depiction of camp life was harsh, but not brutal. I think the author did a good job of making us feel scared about the camps like we should be because I definitely felt scared for Hanna and her family when they enter the camps knowing what happens to the prisoners. I crossed my fingers that Hanna made it out alive in the end. We see that in order to survive Hanna has to swallow her pride. While not many women in the camp are lucky like Hanna, Hanna knows how to play the piano, which saves her and her sister. Although she can’t bring her piano to the camp, she misses it a lot. When a position for a pianist is open to play for the Commandant, her sister encourages her to audition to become the Commandant’s new pianist because of the extra food she gets to get and to do it for their mother who is weak.

Hanna has to learn to grow up fast in the camps and she has to because no one is going to watch her back for her. Her stubbornness keeps her alive. In the beginning she depended on her mom and sister to look out after her, but when her mom falls ill and Erika grows weak, Hanna learns to stand on her own. Just like Erika she’s a bit of a rebel when she needs to be. She doesn’t say that she’s 15 (despite the fact that Erika tells her she should say that she’s 15), she learns to steal, and learns to suck up to the block guard by giving her food. With their parents gone, they have to look after one another. I liked Erika’s rebellion, but I was scared that something might happen to her.

There’s a bit of romance a la Romeo and Juliet style. The romance isn’t entirely overwhelming and I liked the development that showed. After what the SS does to Hanna and her family, she doesn’t trust any of them especially Karl – the Commandant’s son, who seems to be meh by what’s happening around him. And Hanna can’t take it that he doesn’t care. However, she slowly starts to trust him and when she makes mistakes that she knows the Commandant doesn’t like he steps in to save the day. But, we know that the ending for them isn’t going to end well. He’s a German and she’s a Jew. They’re not supposed to intermingle with one another. The romance was just bittersweet that you can’t help but want to cheer them on. And also to cheer on for Hanna’s survival.

The ending was left open ended and there were a few things that had me confused. While this book was a quick read, it left me wishing for an epilogue because I need to know what happens with Karl and Hanna.

Author: Jackie

Leave a Reply