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The Harmonica

The Harmonica

3.4 5
by Tony Johnston, Ron Mazellan (Illustrator), Stewart Lees

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When the Nazis invaded Poland, a family is split apart. The parents are sent to one concentration camp, their son to another. Only his father's gift, a harmonica, keeps the boy's hopes alive and, miraculously, ensures his survival.

Tony Johnston's powerful story, inspired by the life of a Holocaust survivor, is enhanced by Ron Mazellan's luminous artwork.



When the Nazis invaded Poland, a family is split apart. The parents are sent to one concentration camp, their son to another. Only his father's gift, a harmonica, keeps the boy's hopes alive and, miraculously, ensures his survival.

Tony Johnston's powerful story, inspired by the life of a Holocaust survivor, is enhanced by Ron Mazellan's luminous artwork.

A testament to the human spirit and the transcendent power of music.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in WWII Poland and inspired by a true story of a Jewish family, Johnston's (Uncle Rain Cloud) stirring tale opens on a wistful note: "I cannot remember/ my father's face,/ or my mother's,/ but I remember their love,/ warm and enfolding/ as a song." Mazellan's lifelike, earth-toned mixed-media paintings reveal a boy and his parents, first huddled together over a book, then singing together, then listening to the music of Schubert coming from a neighbor's gramophone. When his father returns from his job in a coal mine with a harmonica and gives it to the boy, his son practices on it until he can play Schubert. Meanwhile, "Somewhere outside, a war/ was raging. But it was far away-/ a bad dream-leaving us untouched." But not for long. The tenor of the narrative changes abruptly as Mazellan depicts Nazi soldiers banging on the door; the family is separated and the boy is sent to a concentration camp. When the commandant insists the lad play his harmonica for him each night, the boy cannot imagine how someone so cruel could appreciate the beauty of Schubert's music and is disgusted to perform it for him. But he finds solace in the realization that his playing also reaches his fellow prisoners, "who might hear the notes/ and be lifted, like flights/ of birds." The illustrator makes an affecting children's book debut, choosing images that communicate the story's pathos while sparing the audience many of the setting's horrors. Ages 6-11. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
The true story of Holocaust survivor Henryk Rosmaryn is the inspiration for this stark, simply told, but emotion-packed narrative. As a young boy in Poland, our narrator's life was filled with family love and with music. Too poor to own a piano, they sang and listened to the gramophone. The father's precious gift to his son is a harmonica, which brings more music and joy to their lives. But the Nazis arrive and the boy is taken alone to a concentration camp. There he is asked to play his harmonica for the commandant. Guilty about receiving bread for his playing, he is reassured by the other prisoners that his music lifts their hearts. Despite the grim setting, Rosmaryn' survival in the United States until 2001 lets hope shines through the darkness. The text is a tone poem; the textured mixed-media illustrations reflect the camp setting in somber tones of brown, gray, and green following the warm tans and orange of the time when the family is free. The almost too naturalistic scenes of horror and pointless cruelty contrast the striped prisoners' garb with the Nazi uniforms amid the chill winter snow and in the overcrowded bunks. As the boy plays for the others, a touch of orange hints at the hope the music brings. 2004, Charlesbridge, Ages 7 to 10.
—Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
Gr 3-6-Inspired by the story of a Holocaust survivor, this exquisite picture book is poignant and powerful. Simple sentences charged with delicate word choices briefly recount the first-person narration of a poor but happy boy and his parents in Poland who were captured, split up, and taken to concentration camps. The youngster manages to take with him the harmonica his father gave him, on which he plays Schubert. The commandant of the camp learns of his talents and orders him to, "Play, Jew!" The boy complies-and finds out that the whole camp hears him and takes heart from the music. The mixed-media illustrations change from a warm to cold palette to underscore the move from home to camp. While the story is set in World War II, the theme is broader, and makes a case for the power of music/art to support and sustain humanity. There is an appended note about the life of Henryk Rosmaryn.-Cris Riedel, Ellis B. Hyde Elementary School, Dansville, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This dark piece is based on a Holocaust survivor's experience. A boy lives happily with his parents in Poland, singing and learning to play harmonica; however, the mixed-media illustrations already swirl with anguish and the barbed wire on the cover looms large. Sent to a concentration camp alone, he endures hunger, cold, and forced labor. In a painful twist, an officer discovers his musical gift: " 'Play, Jew!' The commandant spat, night after night." Tormented, the boy plays Schubert, wrestling with the question of how the beautiful music can both invoke his loving parents and also bring rapture to a murderous Nazi officer. One night in the dark barracks, a voice whispers, "Bless you": the Schubert has reached the ears of the prisoners as well. So in his heart, he plays for them-and for his gone-forever parents. Frequent figurative language gives the narrative voice an adult tone. Visually effective and grim. (author's note) (Picture book. 8+)

Product Details

Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
8.50(w) x 11.06(h) x 0.18(d)
Age Range:
7 - 10 Years

Meet the Author

Tony Johnston is the author of over 100 books for children, including THE CAT WITH SEVEN NAMES and THE BARN OWLS. She lives in California.

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The Harmonica 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A semi-finalists in the 2005 Independent Publisher Book Awards! A young Polish boy, living with his parents in a house filled with love and music, yearns for a piano so he can play the music of his favorite composer, Schubert. But the family is poor, and it is the gift of a harmonica that lets the boy make music - until the Nazis find them. Torn from his parents, the boy plays his harmonica in his concentration camp to keep from forgetting what once was and from losing all hope. When the camp commandant hears of his musical prowess, the boy is forced to play for the Nazi. Ashamed of receiving scraps of bread from the officer while others starve, he eventually hears heartfelt thanks from another prisoner. He realizes that, 'Each night, like the very stars, my notes had reached other prisoners.' From then on, when ordered to play, the boy does so with all his heart. There are few happy tales from the Holocaust. But there are many stories of man's indomitable spirit, something that transcends the horrors of that time and place. This is another such tale, based on the true story of a Holocaust survivor. And it expresses the uplifting power of music, which no walls can contain. Luminous illustrations help make this book a masterpiece. Those who enjoy The Harmonica may also enjoy Ruby Lee the Bumble Bee: A Bee's Bit of Wisdom. In it, a young girl perseveres in the face of a challenge, and grows as a result - an award finalist for the Benjamin Franklin Award which also recognizes excellence in independent publishing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This thoughtful book evoked empathy for the main character but failed to truly engage you in his everyday misery. Towards the middle of the book the author suceeds in having you identify with the character but it is not a true relationship with him as it would have been if the reader had been engaged from the beginning. The book deals with an important issue in history but this get diluted in the stilted language. The book's topic and feelings are slightly older than the suggested age range for the book.