David Carlson: The beauty of a slow read

There are some books that can be read quickly. There are other books that should come with a note stamped on the cover: “Best read slowly.”

One of the books that deserves a slow read is “When the Music Stopped: Willy Rosen’s Holocaust,” a work by a friend and colleague, Dr. Casey Hayes. Is the book historically accurate? Yes. Is the book fiction? The answer to that question is also yes.

“When the Music Stopped” is a perfect example of a book that is based on extensive research by the author. Willy Rosen was a famous songwriter and impresario between WWI and WWII in Germany and Austria. Yet, despite his fame and stature, Willy Rosen was unable to escape the Holocaust. He died among so many others in Auschwitz.

If the terms “Holocaust” and “Auschwitz” suggest images of beaten-down human beings whose souls were destroyed before their bodies, Casey Hayes’ book offers a necessary correction. Willy Rosen lived, and lived fully, under incredible conditions. It seems trite to write that Willy Rosen refused to give in to despair, but the truth is that “When the Music Stopped” is a book that celebrates the human spirit.

The technical description of the book is “a fictionalized historical account.” What that means is that the book is historical and yet is fiction. Readers don’t just learn the facts of Willy Rosen’s life. We are invited into Willy Rosen’s thoughts, conversations, friendships, and decisions.

A book can be partly historical, partly fictional, and yet totally believable only when an author knows his subject so well that he can enter imaginatively into that person’s life. Casey Hayes does not just know about Willy Rosen; he knows Willy Rosen.

I am not ashamed to write that I have yet to finish “When the Music Stopped.” I could say that this is a deliberate choice on my part, but I also believe the book wants to be read slowly. Willy Rosen’s life is presented in the book something like a slow dance. One partner in the dance was the changing historical conditions as the Nazi war machine slowly absorbed most of Europe.

The other partner in the dance was Willy Rosen and how he responded to conditions that he couldn’t control. As those conditions constantly and progressively changed for the worst, Willy Rosen responded with creativity and courage, never despair.

I will finish “When the Music Stopped” soon, but I am in no hurry. From hearing Casey Hayes speak about Willy Rosen, I know how Willy Rosen’s story ends. “When the Music Stopped” seems to want me to slow down, paying attention not so much to how Willy Rosen died, but how he chose to live.

Before Nazism’s rise, Willy Rosen might have felt that he was the lead partner in the dance of life, he being the one who would determine what would come next for him. When Hitler’s madness changed the dance and determined the fate of millions, including Willy Rosen’s, he could have given up. Or he could have done everything he could to save himself. Instead, Willy Rosen responded by writing songs, putting on shows, and entertaining even when he was imprisoned in a Nazi internment camp.

Willy Rosen danced his life beautifully to the end. Is there a better epitaph for anyone?

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected]