Exile Music by Jennifer Steil

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Exile Music is an incredible, sweeping and moving story. My heart broke on every single page. Beautifully told by Orly, aged 10, we experience the events before, during and after WWII as she comes of age during many, many unimaginable events and experiences.

Exile Music begins with a beautiful friendship between Orly and Anneliese. The structure of the novel is as beautiful as the story inside. In the times before the war started, each chapter begins with important dates chronicling the political rise of Hitler, and other key dates that show the quick and steady removal of all rights for Jews and ends with his ultimate plans. An example:

On January 30, 1939, Hitler announces his desire to annihilate all the Jews of Europe.

Honestly, on every page, my heart broke. Steil’s writing pierces your heart. Through Orly’s eyes we see how quickly Austria falls to the Nazis and how seemingly overnight their ecstatic frenzy for Hitler rises. How quickly and swiftly they turned against their Jewish friends and neighbours. How cruelly and easily they did this.

The parallels to today cannot be ignored.

Every page is so powerfully written. I did not know exile was granted in countries like Bolivia and Brazil. Stories about Nazis being in Argentina were abundant post-war, yes, but I didn’t know they were some of the only and last countries to offer escape to the Jews. And Bolivia is where Orly and her parents escape while they wait for Orly’s brother and other family members to join them. The vast differences between Austria and Bolivia are exquisitely told, especially through the eyes of Orly, but who can only wish to embrace this country and not think of it as temporary.

Orly reflects on all that she does not remember, or all that does not make up her experiences, and it is heartbreaking:

I do not remember the failures in Evian, where no asylum was offered. My mother never told me that it wasn’t just Austria who abandoned us. My father never told me the world had given Hitler permission to do with us what he wanted.

I do not remember when journalist Dorothy Thompson reminded the American public that eradicating the Jews had always been part of the Nazi platform. I never heard her too-lonesome voice reminding the world that the Nazis were doing exactly what they had always said they would do.

(Bold of text is mine)

I loved how each section of Orly’s life – the before, the during and the after – were illustrated in the book. Along with the chapters and their headings of political timelines, each section (before the war, during and after the war) was labelled musically, such as “Second Movement BETWEEN WORLDS“. (This part was about their escape to and life in Bolivia.)

After the war has ended, and Orly’s aunt has survived and made the trip to Bolivia (incredibly heartbreaking parts once again), Orly has nothing but a strong desire to remain in Bolivia. She is eager to learn the language and the ways, and establishes her life solidly there. Her father is able to do this in some ways as well, but her mother never seems to fully embrace their new home. Orly questions how they could possibly return to Austria when they showed so fervently they did not want them?

This sudden change in our status, these new openings in our horizons had been causing me great anxiety. It seemed ungrateful, somehow, to abandon the country that had saved us. To seek an easier life. Was it really any easier to start over, again?

Even now, after the war, Nazis remained in the Vienna Philharmonic, which seemed to suffer very few pangs of conscience. The end of the war apparently not meant the end of the hatred that had caused it.

I cannot properly articulate how moving and heartbreaking this story truly was. I am leaving a great deal out about Orly, her friendship with Anneliese, and her family’s story within too. But perhaps that is done purposely so that you can experience it yourself. I highly encourage you to experience this story for yourself. It was incredible and I was glued to every page. What an incredible person Steil has gifted us with in Orly. What an amazing book and it is one I highly, highly recommend. Truly, my heart broke on every page, but it is such a beautiful, beautiful story too. A must read.