The horrors of the Holocaust and the lives of those who lived through it, and indeed their descendants, have been well documented in fiction so it’s a particular pleasure to find a writer that has managed to present a familiar subject from a different perspective. The Lost Wife is a story about first love and how one never forgets it; that the two main characters are separated as a result of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia is important but secondary to the main theme, in my opinion.
The story opens with the meeting of an elderly Jewish man and an elderly Jewish woman who have not seen each other for decades, each believing the other is dead. As young newly weds they had been separated when Lenka refused to take up the visa that Josef’s father had managed to get his daughter-in-law, that would allow her to go with her in-laws to the United States. Lenka would not go without her parents and her younger sister and told Josef to go on ahead and secure the visas for her family from the United States. A few months later Lenka hears that the ship carrying Josef and his family from England to the States has been attacked and that her husband and all of his family have been listed among the dead.
In reality Josef survived, the only one of his family to do so, and when he reaches America he writes at once to Lenka to let her know he is safe. His letters, however, go unanswered; in fact they are returned, addressee gone away. Believing that they will be going somewhere where Jewish people will be safe together, rather than being harassed on the streets of Prague, Lenka and the others voluntarily present themselves for transportation to Terezin, a former palace and barracks outside of the capital. When they arrive there, they quickly realise that it is not what they had anticipated.
The Lost Wife is a captivating story, surprisingly so given that the ending of the story is revealed in the first few pages of the book and because there are no major twists along the way. There are a number of factors that make this so readable in spite of knowing the outcome. The first is that author Alyson Richman very quickly establishes a relationship between the reader and the central characters so that you really care what happens to them from the outset. Knowing what was likely to follow didn’t make the story more predictable because I felt a connection with the characters that made me want to follow their stories regardless.
“…it is the portrait of a deep and unbreakable love that sticks in my memory.”
The settings of Prague and subsequently the concentration camp at Terezin, a place which differed in several respects from camps such as Auschwitz, a more frequent setting for a Holocaust novel, bring something new to the genre. Terezin was unique in that it was a “show camp”, the only one that foreign visitors were permitted to enter. Standards were higher there and, while conditions could hardly be described as good, there was certainly less squalor. This did not mean, however, that Jews who made it to Terezin had any more chance of surviving. Terezin was used to prove to the outside world that interned Jews were being well treated but since those held there were only slightly better treated than those in other camps, the effects of a poor diet and over work were obvious. To give the impression that Terezin was full of healthy happy Jews, a new supply of fresh prisoners had to be brought in regularly while those who looked obviously unwell were moved east, almost always to the “death camps”. Any Jew who had a skill that could be of use to the Nazis could, so long as he or she did not get caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing, could extend their potential stay at Terezin.
At Terezin Lenka is fortunate enough to be given a position working in the drawing studio where prisoners with a talent for art are put to work documenting the development of the infrastructure of the camp such as the building of railroads to bring new internees directly into the camp. Although those put to work in the art studio had plenty to do, they still managed to work secretly on their own pieces that they hoped to be able to somehow smuggle out of Terezin to alert those outside to the horrors taking place behind the camp fences. The risks inherent in such acts add an element of suspense which makes up, to a degree, for the lack of surprise in the ending.
The narration alternates between Lenka and Josef but Lenka’s story starts before the war and only continues with any real depth until the end of the war, while Josef’s story is almost entirely told from the point at which he arrives in the United States. I found this creates an imbalance in the story and I would have loved to have found out more about how Lenka felt about her life after the war until her meeting with Josef.
In case the story might lead some readers to believe that the experience of concentration camps was not so bad, Richman moves to Auschwitz for the final scenes and presents the reality for those Jews who were not so ‘fortunate’ as to be sent to Terezin. In doing so she shows why it was that some survived the war, and others did not. Either way, we see how even those who survived the war and whose physical injuries healed, still suffered psychologically, often, like Josef and Lenka, for the rest of their lives.
The Lost Wife is a painful but worthwhile read. For all the details of the camps and the ill treatment of the prisoners, it is the portrait of a deep and unbreakable love that sticks in my memory. Highly recommended.
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