Review of “The Lost Wife” by Alyson Richman

I haven’t read a book that focuses on the deleterious effects of surviving the Holocaust since my heart was torn out by New Lives:New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America by Dorothy Rabinowitz. That book is non-fiction, but one wishes it weren’t. This book is fiction although based in fact, and while much of it occurs during the Holocaust, there is a great deal of attention paid to the pain that came after.

This story begins in 2000, when 85-year-old Josef Kohn and 81-year-old Lenka Maizel rediscover each other after 61 years. They had fallen in love and were married before World War II, but were almost immediately separated when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and only Josef (and his family) could get out. Lenka refused to leave unless her family could go also. Although Josef intended to send for them soon, neither Josef nor Lenka realized that by 1939, when Josef left, it was already too late for the Jews.

Josef’s ship to New York was torpedoed, and he alone of his family survived. Lenka ended up at the “show camp” of Terezin, a model camp which served as the only one into which Germans would allow foreign observers, where her ability to draw enabled her to survive for a while by making propaganda pictures for the Nazis. [Terezin was a special camp made to show the world how “well” the Jews were being treated. In order to accomplish this, however, the starving Jews who were there needed to be replaced constantly with new, healthier looking inmates. In all, nearly 90,000 were transferred from Terezin to points further east and almost certain death. Roughly 33,000 died in Theresienstadt itself. Fifteen thousand children passed through Terezin, with only around one hundred surviving, none under the age of 14.] In spite of all the death at Terezin, it was in fact not a death camp, where so many Jews went straight to the gas chambers. But finally, in November, 1944, Lenka and her family were shipped east to the largest and most notorious death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. [While exact figures still are disputed, historians generally agree that the number of Jews killed at Auschwitz fell somewhere between one and one-point-six million. The head of the camp, however, Rudolf Höss, testified to the War Crimes Investigation Unit of the British Army of the Rhine, “I personally arranged on orders received from Himmler in May 1941 the gassing of two million persons between June-July 1941 and the end of 1943, during which time I was commandant of Auschwitz.” Most but not all of the victims were Jews.] Lenka survived this ordeal also, and ended up marrying an American soldier she met after the war while she was in a displaced persons camp.

Josef, meanwhile, went on to marry a woman he met in New York, a woman who was haunted her whole life by having left her family behind in order to survive. Ironically, it is just that nightmare that Lenka wanted to avoid by not leaving with Josef when she could have, and staying back with her family.

Although both Lenka and Joseph came to love their second spouses, their hearts and minds had been broken, and the relationship they had with their new spouses was never anything like the love they had with each other.

And then, in 2000, both second spouses having died, they met again, in the most improbable circumstances, and after being convinced each other had perished long ago. One could only hope they could find some healing with one another, and realize the words spoken at their wedding so many years before: “I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine.”

Discussion: What we see so clearly in this novel is how the Nazis destroyed minds as well as bodies. Although the protagonists survived the war, they never recovered psychologically from their ordeal.

I appreciated the fact that although the author has Lenka go to Terezin, where conditions were much better than in other camps, she also shows life [sic] in Auschwitz, so that readers without knowledge of the Holocaust can see what the experience was like for most Jews who were not “fortunate” enough to spend time in Terezin.

Some of the characters in the book were actual people, such as Lenka’s friend Dina Gottliebova, the artist Bedrich Fritta and the artist Petr Kien. Lenka speaks often in the book of the work done with children in Terezin, and there is a book by Hana Volavkova that contains images of their surviving art work and poetry. Called I Never Saw Another Butterfly, it is named after a poem by Pavel Friedman, a young teen who was incarcerated at Terezin and was later killed at Auschwitz.

Evaluation: This is a heart-breaking and heart-warming book with an unforgettable story. But in addition, this book is important for several reasons:

It provides a human face to the incomprehensible numbers of people railroaded to their deaths by the Nazis, and shows us quite precisely what was endured and what was lost, and why it was so hard to fight by the weakened and terrorized victims of the Nazi juggernaut.

Richman shows us not only one face of the concentration camps, but two, making it easier for readers to understand how and why some survived and some didn’t.

And it is important because it says to us, who have the leisure and freedom and strength to sit and read, to play, and to enjoy our children and our futures, that we must be eternally grateful for our blessings, and not forget those who had those blessings taken away from them.

Rating: 5/5

Published by The Berkeley Publishing Group, part of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2011

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28 Responses

  1. OK, you’ve sold me. Onto the Goodreads list it goes …..

  2. Your review is fabulous and has made me want to drop everything and read this book right now.

  3. WHAT???? 5 out of 5? Well, damn girl. That seals the deal for me. Not that I need my arm twisted to read anything about WWII, but there are so darned many of them these days that they need to be just a little different to strike my fancy. You’ve done it to me again.

  4. You sold me, too… just ordered from amazon!

  5. Like Sandy, when it comes to WWII literature, I need something that stands above the pack, and it sounds like this one does. I loved this review, and think that the book sounds remarkable, not only in it’s scope, but in the ways that it makes you really think about some of the things that went on during this time, and the ramifications as well. It sounds like a sad book, but an important one too, and I am adding it to my list. Brilliant and very moving review today, Jill. I enjoyed reading it.

  6. I’ve read a giant handful of WWII books, and my problem is always that I read and remember the fiction as non-fiction. There’s something so authentic and so painful about the time period and the stories which have come out of it that I internalize them all as real.

  7. This sounds like such a beautiful book (in a wide sense of the word that doesn’t exclude all the horror, of course). I also haven’t read the non-fiction title you mentioned in your opening paragraph, so I’ll have to look for that as well.

  8. You sold me too…into the Shopping Cart it goes…I bawled (literally gasping for air at times) my way through Night by Elie Wiesel and spent hours in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. so I’m not sure I’m ready for New Lives yet…yet.

  9. I’ve read I never saw another butterfly…

    And yes, it made me cry.

  10. Sounds like a wonderful read for my book club – so much to think about and talk about. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  11. I am currently reading a book about WWII, so this sounds like it would be a great book to follow that up with!

  12. I am very curious about this book, but I haven’t got around to reading it…

  13. Your review moved me…I MUST read this one. I know that I’ve said this on numerous occasions but your writing is phenomenal.

  14. That last paragraph and the 5 rating have me adding this to my list even though I don’t typically like WWII fiction.

  15. Wow, I thought this book looked good, but wasn’t expecting it to get a five star rating (in part because there is just so much Holocaust fiction out there so it’s like hunting for buried treasure sometimes). I haven’t heard of the New Lives book before – I am generally drawn to nonfiction so I’ll have to see if I can track down a copy.

  16. I got chills just reading your review. This sounds fantastic!

  17. I had no idea about the power of this book! I have it sitting here on my shelves.

  18. Excellent and impassioned review. When you get excited about a book, so do I. It sounds like a book that everyone should read to get a full view of all the effects of the Holocaust.

  19. I’m so grateful that these stories are being written down before it’s too late. Your review was very compelling. I’ve put this on my must-read list.

  20. Sounds so poignant and sad. I am going to try to read this one. I usually stay away from holocaust stuff as I cry too much and am too depressed after. But this sounds like it ends well:)

  21. I read a rave review of this one months ago and haven’t forgotten it! I went as far as to save it in my shopping cart with one book retailer, and I think it’s high time I invest. Great review!

  22. This has been on my list. It sounds fantastic. Terrific review. I think I need to check out my library.

  23. Beautiful review! This book is one of my favorite reads of 2011. It was so heartbreaking, yet there is hope because Richman starts their story in the present, with their reunion. She really does a wonderful job showing how the Nazis tore families apart and left people unable to heal and move on. You definitely need to have tissues handy when reading it. Will link to your review on War Through the Generations.

  24. What a great review! I’m definitely adding this one to my list!

  25. [...] On her blog, Rhapsody in Books, Jill Broderick reviews The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman [...]

  26. Thank you for the post, I have had this on my book shelf, from the publicist. The cover of the book is decieving. I thought it was a romance. But, it sounds like a meatier book than I thought. Sometimes book covers are so decieving. It teaches me not to always go by the cover. I hope to read it soon. I am reading Oriental Wife, another based on the time period. I think I will wait a bit, to read another though.

  27. [...] The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman, The Orchard by Theresa Weir, and Grant’s Final Victory by Charles Bracelen Flood These books tested my Kleenex supplies. [...]

  28. [...] Review of “The Lost Wife” by Alyson Richman – Rhapsody in Books [...]

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