Every once in a while one encounters a book that is, simultaneously: deeply moving and critically important. “Music of the Butterfly” is such a book. It tells the story of a young Jewish girl who lived in what is today Romania during the time of the Holocaust, a time when her safe, happy world suddenly became a nightmare. How she managed to survive using her imagination to conjure up butterflies and beautiful music whenever her life seemed unbearable is the central theme of the book.
The book’s co-authors, Leis and Klein and illustrator, Hardwick, working as a team, have put together a thoughtful, nuanced and important work that offers, through simple story-telling, a glimpse into one of the most gruesome periods of history. Many books have been written about the Holocaust but the great importance of “Music” is that it is one of the few written for children of an age when their minds are still malleable and when the lessons of history can take deep root. It’s important, also, because of the message of hope it offers for coping with very dark times.
How the story is told is compelling. The narrator throughout the book is Renee Rosenberg Danziger, a survivor of the Holocaust and mother of co-author Klein. Except for when Renee introduces herself as a grandmother, in the beginning, the voice we hear initially and the images we see are those of Renee when she was eight to ten years old. Upon entry to the camps, the voice and image shift, almost unnoticed, to those of Renee as a teenager and then, upon release, to the voice of an adult. Although Lili, Renee’s younger sister, implicitly is part of the story, the child reader never has to confront directly her death in the gas chambers. To the adult reader, however, the photograph in the dedication and the knowledge that Lili dies make this story especially poignant and powerful.
For anyone reading “Music”, its authenticity is confirmed by Elie Wiesel’s gut-wrenching memoir, “Night”. He was a little younger than Renee, came from the same town, Sighet, and was probably deported to Auschwitz at about the same time as she in 1944.
“Music” is a story of stark contrasts mostly as seen through the eyes of a child. As the story opens, we see a world of love, family, warmth, and beauty. Then, suddenly and without warning, a dark shadow crosses and it becomes a world of almost indescribable harshness, a world of cattle cars, snarling dogs, guns and a transcendentally cruel demagogue. Through the darkness, life is sustained only by flickering childhood memories of a beautiful parallel world of butterflies, music, and hope. Finally, almost as suddenly as it appeared, the shadow passes and there emerges a shining, welcoming world, America, and a new life. It’s both a moving apotheosis and a clarion warning we should never forget.
There have been many mass murders throughout history, most of which we associate with a named tyrant or demagogue. Many millions of ordinary human beings, beyond those ascribed to the Holocaust, have died in them, but, sadly, individual stories of the victims are rarely recorded and are thus forgotten. That we may learn from their fates is the principal reason why “Music” and the many other documented accounts of the Holocaust are so important.
Could a Holocaust happen here in the United States? The answer, I believe, is that it’s possible but unlikely in the same exact form. Our Constitution is not perfect. It was flawed by compromises made at a time of enactment and has been amended 27 times. A bloody Civil War was the result of its initial lack of inclusivity. Just how secure we are today depends critically on three necessary conditions; namely, how well we can maintain political independence of the main branches of government as defined in the Constitution, how well we understand the economic and social systems that govern every aspect of our daily life and, finally, how fairly we treat our citizens, economically and socially.
In recent years our democracy has become increasingly dysfunctional through the political impasse, rising partisanship, and electoral anger. This is evidenced by its failure to pass needed legislation, fill vacant administrative and judicial positions and by its becoming deeply involved in wars for which there is not, or was not, full popular understanding and support. Either in this or in one of the next several election cycles, we see the possibility of a demagogue becoming our president, opening the door to possible loss of constitutional democracy and, consequently, to wildly unpredictable social and economic turmoil.
In 1787 at the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a lady asked Benjamin Franklin, “Do we have a Republic or a Monarchy?” His reply was, “A Republic if you can keep it”. Clearly, the best answer to his admonition is and has always been, universal education on how our democracy works and on the responsibilities of its citizens to preserve and protect it. To be really effective, this education must begin early in a child’s life with the objective teaching of historical events and it must not shy away from their dark side. To serve that need, I believe “Music” should be part of the curriculum of every elementary school in the country. In time, its reach should extend far beyond.
Out of one of the most terrible periods in history comes this modest, and moving book that offers us a powerful vehicle for teaching the danger that rule by a demagogue presents. In importance, it ranks with that of “The Diary of Anne Frank” because it is written in the voice of a young person to the young, because of its appreciation for this remarkable democracy of ours and because of its message of hope. It can, if widely taught, provide inspiration for our children as they become adults to work ever more diligently to preserve that democracy. It can, if widely taught, provide an exceptionally effective tool to use in responding to Franklin’s prescient admonition.
By Robert Barnard O’Connor, Jr., PhD