Honor and Honesty; Thoughts on “The Cello Still Sings” by Janet Horvath
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A Generational Story of the Holocaust and of the Transformative Power of Music
Of the many virtues and values of “The Cello Still Sings” by Janet Horvath the most outstanding is her unwavering honesty. The existence of her book is a piece of evidence not just how brutally honest she was on her journey of self and family history discovery, but also in the process of writing it down for us as well, for the readers. That is what I am most grateful for her: instead of idolizing her accomplished parents she was not hesitant to describe their human and less-than-perfect side as well. In the postscript, she wrote (page 357):
“One of the most important tenets of Judaism is to honor one’s parents. Perhaps this is why so many children of Holocaust survivors, like me, obsess about learning their histories, especially while our parents are still with us. We strive to mold these stories into something that lives on in tribute.”
The result of the process is this truly remarkable tribute to her own parents, where she honors them (while acknowledging both their faults and merits) and brings the saying “may their memory be a blessing” into fruition. Furthermore, she does this work for a lot of other second-generation Holocaust survivors through her own example. The lessons she learned while discovering what motivated her parents’ actions and words (or lack of them) and how these related to the trauma of the Holocaust point beyond her personal story. It rings true for the generation of survivors and their children (and their children’s children).
This is where I will abandon my job attempting to be an objective reviewer. There are way too many familiar elements in this book for me to stay an outsider. A lot of the razor-sharp descriptions –starting with foods, smells, and clothes, moving onto atmospheres, and even behavior patterns–could have described my own family. Even the photos in the book–and there are dozens of them–seemed like they stepped out of my family’s albums. I am “only” third generation, meaning my grandparent were the survivors, but the experience of reading this book made me relive some of my own childhood memories and what I know of/understand about my mother’s childhood. Having read this tome helped me to gain insights into my own grandparents, who similarly to the author’s parents almost never talked about what happened to them during the Shoah.
I read most of the book during the second week of May 2023. This coincided with the 75th anniversary of the concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted on May 10, 1948 at the Landsberg and Feldafing displaced persons (DP) camps in Bavaria. That event is the catalytical starting point of the book. The accidental discovery that this concert happened and George Horvath, the author’s father, was one of the 17 musicians in the orchestra sent the author on the decade-long journey of uncovering not just the circumstances of that concert and her father’s place in it, but also opening up and learning about the history of Hungarian Jewry before during and after the Holocaust. And culminating with her playing there too on the 70 anniversary of that life-changing concert.
If you know little about that topic you will learn a lot about this period from the book. If you are like me, who are fairly familiar with this dark history, then I recommend that instead of trying to find whether there is any new information for you let just immerse yourself into the narrative that is made up of equal parts of general history, personal/family history and inner reflections. Ms Horvath’s ability of unrestrained self-reflection combined with her eloquent writing style, her way of summarizing complex events into comprehensible paragraphs will not let you put book the down.
Finally, let me share the top ten sentences that I found particularly meaningful and want to come back to, to ponder further. I realize that some of them would be even more meaningful with context. If you want to know the context read the book.
- I spent most of my life inhaling, rarely exhaling. (p9)
- Music preserved our family, gave us solace from the nightmare of repression. (p16)
- The captive Jews used music to keep their communities intact and their spirits up. (p28)
- Nazi oppressors used music to mobilize their soldiers and taunt their victims. (p28)
- [The author’s mother’s] talent in the kitchen was not merely a Jewish mother’s penchant for food. After the deprivation in her youth, feeding us well defined her—proof that those days were behind her. (p59)
- Grandchildren symbolized even more continuity. (p89)
- I agonized over the questions never asked. (p118)
- You need not bear the burden of victimization you have inherited. (p219)
- Those of us who are children of the Holocaust vacillate between the impulse to hide, and the pledge to resist. (p317)
- Resilience can be defined by how quickly the symptoms of trauma fade. (p357)
Comparing this book to a well-crafted cello concerto would not be an exaggeration. Just as a skilled cellist strikes the perfect balance between technique and emotion, Horvath seamlessly merges her extensive research of the subject of the book with her heartfelt passion for herself, life, family, and humanity as a whole. The closure of the book points beyond the Jewish experience and the Holocaust and makes an astonishing stand against oppression of any kind. I could not agree with the closing lines of her books more (p358):
“As the world tilts toward authoritarianism, the instinct to forget and deny will be enormous. As our way of life is endangered, rather than allow fear to resurge, we have the opportunity to act. This feels urgent now.”
Check out the book on the author’s website and on the publisher’s. And listen to her in the book’s trailer below:
Disclaimer: I have received a digital copy of this book and a small amount from the author which did not affect my review in any way.
Year first published: 2023