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Book Review

What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Gerta Rausch is 16 when British forces liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The year is 1945, and the weak, skeletal Gerta has spent two years as a Nazi prisoner. She and other dazed survivors wonder how, where and with whom they will start their lives again.

Gerta’s narrative flashes back to periods prior to and during captivity. As a child, she lived in Köln, Germany, with her parents. She and her father, a skilled viola player, relocated to Würzburg after her mother was killed. They lived with an opera teacher named Maestra Maria Büchner. Although Father never married Maria, Gerta considered her a stepmother.

Maria helped Gerta develop her operatic voice and educated her about womanhood. Father and Maria sheltered Gerta from the political conflict of the day, so she knew little about the Nazis. She didn’t even learn she was Jewish until she and her father were arrested and thrown in a cattle car. Father then admitted he changed their last name and tried to hide their nationality. He also revealed Gerta’s mother was killed during a raid on a Jewish club.

Gerta and Father were taken to Theresienstadt for a time, and then transported to Auschwitz. A soldier purposely tripped Father and broke his leg. Like all wounded who arrived at Auschwitz, Father was sent to the gas chamber for extermination. Gerta survived at Auschwitz because she could play her father’s viola. She became part of the orchestra that “welcomed” new prisoners.

Greta’s narrative picks back up in 1945. Bergan-Belsen has become a camp for displaced former prisoners. The British army tries to provide adequate living conditions, educational opportunities and activities in the aftermath of war. Gerta spends time with a young man named Lev, who nursed her back to health after liberation. Lev, a devout Jew, wants to marry her. Gerta refuses him, saying she still has a musical career ahead of her. She also fears the possibility of losing more people she loves.

Gerta meets an attractive boy named Michah, an underground operative who helps former prisoners flee Europe. He tells her Jews are no longer welcome in Europe, and many are met with prejudice and violence when they try to go home. Still others, like her, are stuck in camps. He says he wants to help get his fellow Jews to freedom. He kisses her often and urges her to leave with him. Even though Gerta keeps her distance from Lev, he continues to share his story and feelings through letters to her.

Gerta takes classes in the camp to resume her education and learn about her Jewish heritage. She continues to play the viola and tries to rediscover her singing voice. Like Lev, her friend Roza and many others, she struggles to feel joyful and normal again. Gerta has decided to leave the camp with Michah, but then she catches him in bed with another girl. She finally realizes she was just one of his many flirtations.

When a famous musician is scheduled to perform at the camp, Gerta asks to sing at the concert. Fear overcomes her, and she stands on stage without singing a note. Maestra Maria arrives with the musician and is overjoyed to see Gerta. Gerta pushes her away at first. She’s always wondered if Maria turned her and Father in to the Germans. Maria assures her she did not, and she invites Gerta to return and live with her. Gerta is happy to learn the truth about Maria but refuses to go back to her old home.

Lev works the printing press for a Jewish newspaper in the camp and continues to write letters to Gerta. She loves the stories he shares and the depth of language he uses. When she learns she may have a living relative in Palestine who will take her in, she goes to tell Lev she’s leaving. As she’s trying to say goodbye, she realizes she has always loved Lev. The two marry a week later.

The newlyweds set off together for Lev’s homeland of Poland, where they are met by threats and witness violence against Jews. Fearing for their lives, they return to camp. They ask Michah to help them get to Palestine. Soldiers intercept their ship, and Lev must swim for shore while Gerta escapes in a lifeboat. After a tenuous separation, Lev and Gerta are reunited and live with Gerta’s aunt, Ruth. Ruth and Lev secretly help Gerta get an audition for the Tel Aviv Conservatory. As Gerta celebrates the Sabbath, she feels a mysterious presence and a sense of new joy and hope.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems

Gerta learns about her Jewish heritage and the Jewish faith in various concentration camps. The first time she really thinks about God is in early adolescence. She says an angel came to her in the form of a butterfly and gave her a new voice.

Lev is a devout Jew who loves God, prayer and the rituals of his faith. Gerta begins to think more about God as she spends time with Lev. She fears she can’t embrace faith with the fervor he does and points out that God took away everything Lev loved.

Lev argues it wasn’t God who took those things. When Gerta performs her first Sabbath ritual on her own, she feels warmth, light and a mysterious presence that brings her overwhelming joy.

Authority Roles

Gerta’s father does all he can to shelter her from the political conflicts around them. He and Maria strive to bolster Gerta’s talents and give her hope in preparation for a dark time. Maria offers to bring Gerta home with her after the war, but Gerta refuses. The Nazis use their power to torture and murder Jews.


The Lord’s name is used in vain. The words b--ches, b--tards and d--n appear a few times.

The text includes disturbing descriptions of dead bodies in piles and people being shot and beaten. The starving, skeletal prisoners live in filth, covered with lice. Gerta holds one of her bunkmates as the woman has seizures and dies.

When Gerta looks for her father, a woman points to chimney smoke at the camp and says her father is in there. Laughing soldiers pull a nursing baby from its mother’s breast and throw it against the wheel of a train. They manhandle the woman, then shoot both mother and child.

Lev recalls seeing his mentor and father figure gassed at Auschwitz. He had to put the man’s body in the oven himself. Even after the war, Gerta and Lev hear of a mass killing and witness violence toward Jews in Poland.


Michah kisses Gerta often. Gerta finds him in bed with another girl. He later admits his sexual relationships helped him numb the emotional pain he feels.

Gerta and Lev kiss. They have sex, each for the first time, on their honeymoon night. The nongraphic scene depicts Gerta’s awkwardness and nerves as she tries to relax. When they begin to kiss and undress, she is pleased to realize he is the only one who will ever see her war scars and vice versa.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Body changes/Womanhood: Maria notices Gerta’s nightgown is stained with blood. She gently leads her to another room, away from where Father is sitting. After this, she begins educating the girl on her period and other aspects of maturity. In the camps, the malnourished girls stop having their periods. When they begin to get healthy again, they’re surprised to have their periods return. Roza says she had resigned herself to the idea that she’d probably never be able to have children. She looks at the return of her period as a sign of hope. An illustration depicts Gerta in a bra as she’s changing clothes.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 to 19


Vesper Stamper






Record Label



Alfred A. Knopf


On Video

Year Published



National Book Award Longlist, 2018


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