Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Lost Wife

by Alyson Richman
Berkley Books    2011
358 pages  Historical Fiction

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman is first and foremost a love story. Josef and Lenka meet and fall in love in Prague a few years prior to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Lenka is an art student and Josef is in medical school. They marry so that they can travel to the United States under the sponsorship of one of Josef's relatives, but they cannot get passage for Lenka's family. Lenka refuses to leave her parents and sister, so the young couple separates. Lenka thinks Josef has perished in the sinking of the SS Athena off the coast of Ireland because his name appears on the roster of the dead. However, Josef is rescued and travels to the United States where he keeps searching for Lenka, until all his letters are returned. He believes that she has died in Auschwitz. And so he goes on with his life. 

Meanwhile, Lenka and her family have been sent from Prague to a Jewish ghetto created at Terezin. Terezin is a concentration camp, where Czech Jews are forced into hard labor, but they are allowed to live. Because she is an artist, Lenka works as a draftsman for the Nazis. Much of the story revolves around her work and the work of the other artists interred at Terezin as well. Besides their work for the Nazis, the artists try to document life in the camp, a life far different from the life portrayed by Hitler who says that Terezin is how he and the Nazis are protecting the Jews. The Jewish Virtual Library says, "notable musicians, writers, artists, and leaders were sent there for "safer" keeping than was to be afforded elsewhere in Hitler's quest to stave off any uprisings or objections around the so-called civilized world." In all, more than 200,000 people passed through the gates of Terezin.

It is the artwork that was hidden until the end of the war that tells the story of Terezin. Lenka serves as a witness to the creation of this artwork, but she only created one painting, which she dug up from its hiding place shortly after liberation. The story of the artwork is one indication that the author, Alyson Richman, has done her homework to create a realistic narrative of Jewish life in concentration camps.

 Lenka's story is one of surviving tremendous loss. We do not learn as much about Josef's story because his narrative are his remembrances as an old man after a successful career as an obstetrician. The story of star-crossed love combines with a story of survival, resilience, and endurance. Although permanently scarred by their Holocaust experiences, both Lenka and Josef move on to productive lives and raise families with other spouses.

Richman's writing is almost too rich and poetic. It oozes with sentiment at the same time that it tells a tale of stark horror. An example of the florid language: Josef reminisces: "In my old age, I have come to believe that love is not a noun but a verb. An action. Like water, it flows to its own current. If you were to corner it in a dam, true love is so bountiful it would flow over." At times, this language was almost  too much for me.

All the reviews said that I should be crying my eyes out at this holocaust love story, so when I finally cried a few tears at the end of the book, I felt like my cynical soul had finally warmed up a bit. I am sorry about that, because when I read the reviews on Goodreads all oozy and loving, I realized that I am at heart not a romance novel-reader. I guess I am too much of a realist. 

I felt that much of The Lost Wife was tedious, and frankly, I didn't get into the book until the last few chapters. It may have been because the author tells us in the first pages of the book that Josef and Lenka find each other in old age, and I am thinking, "Oh, for heaven's sake, like that is going to happen!" rather than "Oh, how romantic! I wonder how they found each other?" Publisher's Weekly says, and I agree: "Though the framing device of a decades-long separation can be cloying, this is a genuinely moving portrait." According to Richman's website, the book has been optioned for a movie. You might be interested in Richman's interview on

My book club is reading this book for our meeting next week. We don't usually read romances, so it will be interesting to see what everyone thinks. 

Another view of how some other talented people escaped extermination during the Holocaust can be found in the memoir, Hiding in the Spotlight by Greg Dawson. It tells the story of two young piano protégées who survived the Holocaust by giving concerts for the Nazis. You can find my review here.

The Publisher's Weekly Review.
Alyson Richman's website.

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