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The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman (2011)



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I can honestly say that The Lost Wife is one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have read, with the scenes in the Terezin and Auschwitz concentration camps sadly depicting the atrocities and devastation endured by the Jewish prisoners. I was captivated by the story of a long lost love that endured for a lifetime through unspeakable adversities and hardship. Josef and Lenka fall madly in love and are quickly married only to soon be separated by the predicaments of war in Prague during WWII. Both thinking that the other has perished, the book juxtaposes between the voices of Josef and Lenka, as they each tell their story of how their lives unfolded after their separation. Although this book is not a fast moving, jubilant story, the writing is so amazingly beautiful, that to me, it is almost lyrical. The author, Alyson Richman, seems to have portrayed the characters and scenes so flawlessly that I felt transported through time, almost like a voyeur witnessing the experiences of Josef and Lenka. I especially wept when Lenka decides upon a special wedding gift to her granddaughter, as she is now finally sharing what has meant most to her all these years. The Lost Wife certainly speaks to me of man’s resilience in the face of insurmountable obstacles, and the power to love someone unceasingly throughout a lifetime. ( )
  haymaai | Dec 29, 2014 |
Beautiful book about a couple separated by the Nazi occupation of Prague.  A young Josef and Lenka marry just before he and his family of origin escape.  They are able to get exit papers for Lenka, but not for her parents and sister, so Lenka refuses to go, deciding to wait until Josef can send for them all.

Of course, that doesn't happen.  Josef and his family head for America on the SS Athenia.  The ship is torpedoed and they are reported as dead - but Josef survives.  Shortly afterward, Lenka and her family are shipped to Terazin's "model" concentration camp.  A strength of the novel is author Alyson Richman's descriptions of life there, incorporating real people such as artist and art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

Finally, in November 1944, Lenka's mother is chosen to be transported east, and once again, the family decides to stick together.  They are all sent to Auschwitz.  Ultimately only Lenka survives.

Josef's letters to Lenka are returned, so each think the other is dead, and they marry other people; Lenka an American soldier.  They meet once again at the wedding of their grandchildren.  This isn't a spoiler, as it happens at the beginning of the book.  The rest of the story is told in the alternating voices of Lenka and Josef, in the past and in the present (2000).  The novel winds up at the present-day wedding.

In an afterword, author Alyson Richman said she overheard a story about a bride's grandmother and groom's grandfather meeting at a wedding and realizing they'd been married before the war.  Richman also said in an interview that she made Lenka an art student " so I could weave in my historical research about various artists who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz by using their artistic skills."

While I didn't quite buy the romance between Josef and Lenka and its long life (61 years!), I did enjoy the historical aspects of this novel, and would definitely read some of Richman's other books.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan. This review also appears on Bookin' It.] ( )
1 vote riofriotex | Oct 11, 2014 |
This book reminded me of several others in this genre. Touching without being too sappy. ( )
  silva_44 | Jun 23, 2014 |
This was an EXCELLENT book. I listened to it as an audio book from audible.com. The Audio performance was also excellent. This was a haunting, heart wrenching book involving a young married couple Josef and Lenka who marry in Prague just before the occupation. Josef's family gets a sponsor to travel to America with papers for Lenka and a promise for Lenka's family. Just before they are ready to leave, Josef breaks the news to his new bride that they can not accomodate Her family. Lenka refuses to leave without her family and Josef reluctantly goes ahead with with his family with the expectation that Lenka will follow when traveling papers are obtained for her whole family. Soon after Lenka is informed that the ship carrying Josef and his family is torpedo'ed and her family are ripped from their home and forced to board a train to be transported to the German camps. An emotional story that spans 60 years. Hard to get through this without shedding a few tears. ( )
  booklovers2 | Jan 10, 2014 |
I did not like this book, not at all. Many, many readers did, so my review may offend you. Sorry. I'm glad you liked it.

I kept wondering why exactly I disliked it so much. At first I thought that its setting in the Terezin Ghetto was too stark a venue for what was basically a romantic novel, but then I realized that my objection was not related to the Holocaust. I suspect that its placement in any time of serious human suffering would annoy me, whether it was London during the blitz, or a Japanese P.O.W. camp, or the siege of Leningrad. The romance is just too thin and it ends up seeming vapid, formulaic and dissonant.

The author has done her homework, to be sure. The Terezin concentration camp was unusual in that it was portrayed as a model "resettlement" community. It wasn't an extermination camp, but any semblance of normalcy was pure propaganda. Thus, those prisoners who weren't immediately shipped off to the death camps had a tenuous chance at a sort of life. They were allowed to organize themselves in certain respects, such as the author has carefully described: there was music, there were plays, there was a sort of school for the children. There was also terrible privation: hunger, disease, uncertainty, terror.

But in this story, despite the recitation of these conditions, those harsh edges get blurred in a way that makes me very uncomfortable. Here's a passage from Lenka's account. It is a minor observation by her, but one that exemplifies my objections. It is late 1943 in Terezin. She has informed us a few pages earlier that the camp has grown extremely crowded (58,000 in a site that before the war had been designed as barracks for 7,000). She and a fellow inmate with whom she works as an artist are talking.

"We are sitting on the same bench we always sit on, but now the air is pregnant with fall. I can detect the wind cooling, and smell the perfume of drying leaves. The red, dry earth is a dusty veil on my shoes."

Wait: what? "Pregnant with fall"? And then it's going to give birth to winter? Fall doesn't get pregnant. This is like a needle scraping on a record. "I can detect the wind cooling...." Well, that often happens when it gets cold. "...and smell the perfume of drying leaves...." Well, I suspect that unlike most concentration camps, there might have still been trees inside the Terezin confines, although one would guess they'd have been burned for fuel the previous winter. But whatever: there are leaves. In a place crowded by tens of thousands of frightened, desperate prisoners, many of whom suffer from typhus, dysentery, tuberculosis, and never-ending infestations of fleas and lice... but the leaves are perfume-y, and you can discern that scent amid the other perfume-y aromas of a concentration camp? Please.

I suspect that the author was so moved by the struggle to survive at Terezin, and not only survive, but seek cultural sustenance - and sometimes to achieve it - that she is forcing that admirable imagery to the detriment of both her story and the historical record. And it clashes. The book feels tone-deaf throughout.

In November of 1944, her parents are scheduled for transport to Auschwitz. (..."[A] name I wasn't familiar with" - in November of 1944? Unlikely.) She insists on signing herself up for transport as well. Her father, sick and skeletal, objects but she insists they have to stick together, a camp's a camp. They arrive at Auschwitz. "I looked at the steel-gray sky and saw chimneys blowing black smoke. 'That must be where we'll work', I thought. Factories for the German war effort. How wrong I was." No shit. If you can smell the perfume of drying leaves in Terezin, you can damn well smell the stench of burning bodies at Auschwitz. ( )
  Magatha | Dec 10, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 042524413X, Paperback)

A Q&A with best-selling author John Lescroart and Alyson Richman about The Lost Wife

Lescroart: Say a few words about your extraordinary Prologue to this book and how it initiated the creative process of the novel.

Richman: I had been hoping to write a novel where I could explore an artist’s experience during WWII and the Holocaust. So I started to do research about how certain real life artists were still able to create, even under these horrific and dangerous circumstances. But I didn’t know how I was going to frame the novel. Then one day I was getting my hair cut at a local salon, and I overheard the stylist next to me telling a story he had recently heard from another client. It was about a woman who had recently attended a wedding where the bride’s grandmother and the groom’s grandfather had not met previously. At the rehearsal dinner the night before, the groom’s grandfather insisted he knew the bride’s grandmother “from somewhere.” At the end of the evening, still convinced that he recognized her (despite her denials), he asked her to roll up her sleeve. There the six-number tattoo from Auschwitz was inked into her skin. He looked at her again, this time more closely. Studying her face one more time, he said: “You were my wife.”

When I heard that story, I knew I had the beginning of my novel! I would begin and end it at the wedding scene, but invent this couple’s journey in between: how they fell in love in romantic pre-war Prague, but then became separated as the Germans invaded, and later how they each begin new lives in America. I made Lenka--the “lost wife” of the book’s title--a young art student at the beginning of the war, so I could weave in my historical research about various artists who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz by using their artistic skills. It was my hope that my readers would learn and appreciate the history of these artists, while also becoming swept away into Josef and Lenka’s love story that I created.

Lescroart: I have rarely come across a novel where the visual arts have played such an important role, in both the personal and political realm. What is your own background, if any, in visual art? To what extent did your creation of Lenka the artist help you deal with the themes in the book?

Richman: I am the daughter of an abstract oil painter and a painter myself. I actually went to college thinking I was going to major in studio art, but then fell in love with art history. What I love about it was uncovering the story within the painting. My mother taught me, early on in my childhood, the “gift of seeing.” If you’re going to paint, you need to look at the clues of your subject, the traces of life--whether it’s the bruise on a pear or a wrinkle on a face. I try to bring that to my writing and to also incorporate texture and color into my words, so that the reader has a full, sensory experience.

To that end, the reader will experience a marked change in Lenka as the novel progresses. She starts off as a naïve, young art student, who is often more of an observer than a participant. Then becomes an artist willing to steal supplies for the young children in Terezin and anxious to become part of a secret resistance of artists trying to get their art work to the outside world. By the end of the war, she has wholly changed – both as a stronger woman and as a more risk-taking artist.

Lescroart: Josef and Lenka both go on to have lengthy married lives to other people after the war ends. Josef, particularly, builds a life with Amalia that is just heart-rending. How did you envision these people coming together? What kept them together? How was Lenka’s marriage similar, if at all, to Josef’s, and what does your answer say about the nature of marriage itself?

Richman: Many people who have read this novel have said that they’ve never read a book where there are so many different types of love depicted. There a “first love” between the young Lenka and Josef; the love between a parent and child, as well as between sisters; then the love among all the friends Lenka makes in the Terezin ghetto; and finally the loves that both Josef and Lenka experience within their second marriages later in their lives.

The first love between Josef and Lenka is the most beautiful, the most romantic, but I think it’s the subtler shades of love within their respective second marriages that are more complex and perhaps more interesting. On the surface, Josef’s and Amalia’s appears to be loveless. Lifeless. But it is a marriage that exists from a shared pact of silence and respect for their mutual pasts and survivor’s guilt over their lost families. I wanted to create Amalia as an almost “living ghost” because I wanted to explore how Josef would react: his heart is still attached to Lenka, who is truly a ghost of his past, but who still lives deeply within his memory.

Lenka’s post-war marriage to Carl is perhaps the biggest surprise to the reader. At the end of their lengthy marriage, they share a deep love that has transformed over time, built on family and her gratitude for his saving her after the war. But it is a very different kind of love compared to the one Lenka experienced as a young girl with Josef.

Lescroart: The central conceit of this book, and indeed the genesis of the title, strongly relies on the reader’s suspension of disbelief that these two lovers could not only have lost track of one another, but have entirely given up on each other’s survival. In this high wire act, you were completely successful, and I was left in awe by the technical virtuosity of your plotting. Can you describe your plotting/outlining process and some of the problems--both this and others--you found most difficult to solve?

Richman: Well, that’s a very good question. I knew I wanted to involve the Nazi’s sinking of the S.S. Athenia in 1939 into the novel. So I interviewed a survivor of that ship, whose family had mistakenly believed that their father had drowned but then later learned he had in fact survived. So I knew there was, in actuality, a great deal of confusion with casualty reports at that time. Then there is the issue of how inundated the Red Cross was right after the war, with so many refugees and other people trying to locate their loved ones but the information was coming so slowly over from Europe. One has to remember there was no computers or internet at that time.

But truly, the success of the novel’s ringing true to me has to do with the exploration of memory and just how powerful it is. Josef, who was safe here during the war, clings to the memory of Lenka in order to survive, while Lenka must suppress hers of him in order to survive her far more physically traumatic experiences in Terezin and Auschwitz.

Lescroart: You portray life in the Czechoslovakian prison camp of Terezin as horrible of course, yet quite different--more filled with intrigue, politics, and passion--than most other books that deal with the Holocaust. How did this pivotal landscape evolve in your consciousness as you were creating this book?

Richman: I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Czech Republic and meet with survivors of Terezin, some of whom had been artists in the Technical Department there and knew many of the real-life characters depicted in the book. Their testimony really enhanced my writing of the novel and breathed life into it that would have been impossible without hearing about their actual experiences. When you think of the Holocaust, you immediately and rightfully imagine those haunting images of tragedy and death. But through my research, I learned another aspect--the ability of the human spirit to defy great odds just to live--as well as to still be able to love and to create, even under great duress. I remember listening to one survivor of Terezin who said: “We thought we were going to die… so what choice did we have. We still wanted to love and laugh. We still wanted to live.”

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:01 -0400)

During the last moments of calm in prewar Prague, Lenka, a young art student, and Josef, who is studying medicine, fall in love. With the promise of a better future, they marry--only to have their dreams shattered by the imminent Nazi invasion. Like so many others, they are torn apart by the currents of war.… (more)

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