Last week we met the author of this beautifully written love story of two young people living in Prague in the time immediately before the Nazi occupation. It is the romantic narrative of their falling in love, courtship and quick marriage, because of Hitler’s imminent arrival in their homeland. While Lenka and Josef’s enduring romance runs throughout the book, another just as powerful and moving history is woven into A Lost Wife.
It is the true, emotionally transformative and unforgettable narrative of the prisoners at Terezin and Auschwitz concentration camps. Alyson Richman introduces us to all kinds of people. Some are from the most patrician of families and others from the poorest. One group is made up of the most talented in the arts and others are fromacademia, some are executives of huge industries and from small family owned businesses. Their origins don’t matter because, the author makes them all accessible, vulnerable, oh so human and very worthy of our concern and empathy. The majority that Alyson describes and breathes life into for us were once living, breathing, gifted human beings who deserved to live, love and be loved in return.
Their only “crime” according to the hateful, strangely mustached man from Braunau am Inn, Austria-Hungary was they were born Jewish. That was what marked them for complete extermination. We all know of Hitler’s success in devising and carrying out plans to efficiently and economically murder millions of men, women and children of Jewish extraction. He and his minions were relentless in their quest to rid the world of the believers of Judaism. What an unthinkable goal the Holocaust embodied.
The Lovers and Their Families
Both Linka and Josef are from comfortable middle class Jewish families. Their full names are Lenka Maisel and Josef Kohn. Lenka’s father is a well to do glass dealer and her mother is an artist. Josef’s father is a respected and prosperous physician, an obstetrician, and his mother keeps a proper religious and cultured Jewish home. Lenka and Josef’s sister, Veruska, are best friends at the Art Academy in Prague. It is through Veruska that Lenka and Josef first met.
Because war times move the normal, genteel pacing of courtship and marriage into warp speed, and also because Josef’s family has sold everything they owned to purchase visas to America for the four of them to escape the impending catastrophe. When Lenka marries into the Kohn family, the Kohns immediately recognize their obligation to help her escape as well. Somehow they miraculously secure one more precious pass for her to leave Prague. However, when she is told of her free ticket out of Prague, she refuses to leave her mother, father and sister in the city where she has grown up.
When the Kohns are unable to arrange visas for the Maisels, Josef reluctantly goes on to Britain vowing to secure visas for the four Maisels before he and his parents, sister and himself depart for the U.S.A to escape the Holocaust. It is at this point that the real horrors of World War II’s separation, destruction, tragedy, death, and genocide begin for Lenka, Josef, and their families.
Reader’s Reactions to A Lost Wife
When I was researching the book, I began with reader reviews of “The Lost Wife”. The most frequent phrases used to describe either the novel itself or the experience of reading it were, “haunting,” “best Holocaust book that I’ve ever read,” “could not put it down once I read the opening page,” and “totally fulfilling.”
The majority of thoughtfully written criticisms went on to discuss Richman’s marriage of Holocaust history and human experience into a richly detailed and emotionally charged use of language and imagery that left the reader forever changed. That is quite a claim, but having read the novel, I agree with this assessment.
She uses her research skills, artist’s eye and poet’s appreciation for phrasing to capture both the extreme highs and the lows of the human spirit while enduring the Holocaust’s extraordinary conditions. She wrenched the sadness but also the strength of the trials of the Terezin survivors in her interviews with them. Alyson manages all this with beauty and balance and considering the subject matter, this is quite a feat when you realize that the book ends with a message that is uplifting and very encouraging.
I would say that Alyson doesn’t side step or sugarcoat any of the Holocaust concentration- camp atrocities, but neither does she go out of her way to describe the perpetrators actual infliction of torture or deprivation of the victims. Rather she dwells more on the suffering person’s ways of coping with the injury being done to him or her. Many of these coping mechanisms are so positive, creative and life-affirming that in the middle of one of, if not the blackest periods of history, the man still managed to rise above the most deliberate and egregious examples of cruelty enacted by one group of people on another by creating the beauty of all things. It takes your breath away. With this perspective, you can see why I say in my initial description that this is A Very Different Love Story/A Very Different Holocaust Book.
I recommend this book because it addresses familiar themes with intelligence and grace. Also, the plotlines, character development, pacing, details and creativity of language speak highly of the author’s abilities to sensitively speak to new ideas. Alyson Richman theories on the effects of extreme levels of stress on the concept of creative expression are very stimulating. Fascinating conversations will be generated by reading this book. The author will also get your mind and dinner time discussions racing along with a parallel notion of how long and under what adverse conditions love can survive.
This is a Holocaust book that will make you think and feel much differently than you ever have . You will remember the characters in A Lost Wife for a very long time and will miss them like I have since I finished the book a few months ago, but like so many reader reviewers said, “I never wanted it to end.” I feel the urge to read it again and very soon. The fact that 1,165 reader reviewers have taken the time to write their opinions of this best-seller says quite a lot about the richness of Alyson Richman’s A Lost Wife. You can find it by clicking from here to www.amazon.com and entering in either Alyson Richman’s name or the title of the novel. Remember what the readers said about never wanting it to end? What more can you ask for a book or a work of art?