by Walter Zacharius
New York; Atria, 2004
Every Jew should read at least one Holocaust-related book every year.
Jewish-history.com is a site which specializes in the American-Jewish experience
100 years before the European Holocaust. We frequently receive emails and Google
“hits” from searchers who want to learn about the Holocaust, so we direct them
to the Holocaust section of our links page,
and to our
electronic “bookshelf” of Holocaust-related
The Holocaust is such a critical and definitive period of Jewish history that
its impact should never be softened, diminished, denied or co-opted by the very
same people who would be only too delighted to see it happen again.
Songbird is a first novel by Walter Zacharius, a Jewish-American World
War II veteran who based his story on the experiences of a woman he met during
the liberation of Paris in 1944. He kept the details of this survivor’s life
private for 60 years, until he felt compelled to tell her story to the world.
“I’ve been haunted by her story for sixty years,” the author says. “It was
written out of my admiration for her and many of the other people I met during
my tour of duty in Europe.”
The heroine of Songbird is Marisa (“Mia”) Levy, the teenage daughter of
educated, well-to-do, privileged, sophisticated and utterly oblivious Jewish
family in Lodz, Poland. Mia has attended the classiest of French finishing
schools and is looking forward to spending her final year at an elite music
academy in Paris and a career as a concert pianist. She has a French boyfriend,
and although she feels ashamed of her Jewish heritage and appearance and her
parents’ Polish accents, she is confident in her “specialness” that no harm can
come to her.
Her comfortable little world is crushed with astonishing suddenness when the
Germans take control of Lodz. Her parents’ lavish home is looted by their Polish
domestic help, and Mia and her family find themselves in the ghetto, surrounded
by barbed wire and at the mercy of the Nazis and their Jewish collaborators,
Chaim Rumkowski and his “Judenrat.” Not long afterward, Mia and her family are
on a train bound for Treblinka. In one last act of desperation, Mia’s father
shoves her through an opening in the cattle car. She survives; her family
travels on to their doom.
Mia makes her way into occupied Warsaw and connects with the Jewish Underground
there. She joins a band of guerillas led by Wolf Rydecki, a young Zionist. She
lures an SS officer to his death and escapes with Wolf to Switzerland, but her
young lover dies of a gunshot soon after they cross the border to safety.
Once in Switzerland, Mia is able to contact relatives in New York who sponsor
her immigration to the United States. The story could have ended here, with Mia
safe and sound in New York. Despite her harrowing experiences, she could have
recovered emotionally and continued a normal life. In Brooklyn, she begins to
live again, one day at a time. She is still unaware of her family’s fate,
thinking they are at a “work camp.” She goes out to social gatherings, and falls
in love with Vinnie Sforza, a young musician whose enthusiasm for jazz matches
her love for classical. It bothers neither of them, nor any of their relatives,
that Mia is a Polish Jewess and Vinnie is an Italian Catholic. Religion doesn’t
matter to them. (As a reader, religion does matter to me. I dislike
interfaith romances and at this point I wished that the author had made “Vinnie
Sforza” a nice Jewish boy named “Benny Shapiro.” But Songbird is not a
romance with a happy ending.)
The story doesn’t end here, though. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the
U.S. declares war on the Axis, Mia volunteers as a translator for the Wartime
Information Office. Here she works together with celebrities like Robert
Sherwood and Thornton Wilder to keep the public in support of the war effort. It
is worth mentioning that during World War II the mainstream media: Hollywood,
the radio broadcasters and the major newspapers, were entirely supportive of the
government and united the American people against the Axis aggression in order
to win the war. This is not something that we see in today’s Hollywood and
Mia is not satisfied with her translation work. It’s too boring for her, she
craves action and above all, revenge for her family (who she now realizes has
been murdered in the extermination camps). She is accepted and trained as an
Allied spy, and parachuted into occupied France, expecting to connect with the
French Resistance and convey German secrets to the Allies. Mia also hopes to
re-connect with her old French boyfriend. But when she does, he betrays her.
Mia realizes that she can trust no one other than herself. But by now her thirst
for revenge eclipses her commitment to the Allied cause. She denies her own
natural morality, misidentifies innocents for enemies, and by the time Paris is
liberated by the Allies, her own sacrifice has accomplished nothing. She is
ultimately betrayed by those she had been counting on to protect her.
Songbird is not a satisfying novel, and it has no happy ending. But the
story rings true by showing that even “survivors” who remained physically alive
after the Holocaust, lost their identity, their self-esteem, their emotional
Thirty years later, Mia is reunited with her beloved Vinnie, but their reunion
is sordid and shameful, not joyous, because Mia has become convinced that she
does not deserve to have any joy in her life.
Chaim Walder, in his book People Speak, tells the story of a Holocaust
survivor who lived for forty years after the war, married, and raised a large
family without ever telling any of his children what he really experienced in
the camps. He lived an entirely blameless life, attending synagogue, learning
Torah, and raising his children in G-Dliness and righteousness. But on his
deathbed, he confessed to his oldest daughter that every day of his life was
branded with shame and guilt because he had caused the death of another prisoner
in the camps.
Songbird also conveys this sense of survivor’s guilt. It is not an easy
book to read. But every survivor’s tale, even softened and romanced by the hand
of a fiction author, is something that cannot be ignored. I didn’t enjoy reading
Songbird. But I couldn’t put it down.