Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


The adage “truth is stranger than fiction” is proven in The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman.  She has succeeded in blending both for an unforgettable reading experience.

Ms. Richman’s mother was an artist and taught her to look at the world with the eyes of an artist, so it was natural that her first novels’ protagonists were painters (The Mask Carver’s Son and The Last Van Gogh). Richman was also an art history major in college and wanted her next novel to be about artists who continue to create during the most difficult of circumstances.  What circumstance could be more difficult than the Holocaust?  In spite of her agent’s discouragement and warning that this would be a difficult sell, Richman pursued her idea, but didn’t know how she was going to frame the story. 

Fate stepped in at, of all places; a hair salon where she overheard a true story which she knew immediately would be the opening scene and framework of her book.  The improbable story:  at a wedding rehearsal dinner the grandmother of the bride and the grandfather of the groom were introduced for the first time.  He kept insisting that she looked familiar. Something about the eyes.  By the end of the evening he politely asked if she would raise her sheer dress sleeve and let him see her wrist.  He was looking for an identifying birthmark, which as he suspected beyond his wildest belief, was there -- as well as a tattooed number from Auschwitz.  She was indeed the wife who had been separated from him for over sixty years. Through the horrors of war-torn Europe, each believed the other had died.

This is not a plot spoiler—it is the opening scene of the book-in fact it compels you to read on like a reverse mystery.  How did they get separated?  What choices did they make that caused them to get separated?  Who did they eventually marry?  How did they both end up in New York in the year 2000? What follows is their individual stories in alternately seamless narration—hers primarily from the concentration camp and his in America.

Lenka and Josef first meet in the 1930’s in Prague where she is an art student and the daughter of a prominent artisan glassblower.  Josef is a medical student and son of a doctor. They fall in love and rush to marry hoping to escape Czechoslovakia before it is attacked by the Germans.  Although separated by the tragic circumstances of war, their achingly beautiful love story continues throughout the book and is felt deeply through lyrical writing, such as the description when Lenka first meets Josef. “He laughs. And in his laugh I hear bliss.  I hear feet dancing, the rush of skirts twirling.  The sound of children. Is that the sign of first love? You hear in the person you’re destined to love the sound of those yet to be born?”

The Lost Wife, however, is much more than a love story.  Richman’s four years of research including interviews with concentration camp survivors is historical fiction at its finest, portraying actual places and including real people alongside the fictional characters. The setting is Terezin, a concentration camp I had not heard of until this book. Terezin (just outside Prague) was less of a death camp and more of an authentic work camp.   Many Jewish artists were sent there where their skills were utilized to draw blueprints for the Germans or to copy masterpieces onto postcards which were then sold.

If one Googles Terezin, they will read,  Hitler told the world he built a city for the Jews to protect them from the vagaries and stresses of the war.  A propaganda film was made of this “showcase” community spruced up for the Red Cross visit.   Bakery windows and shelves were suddenly overflowing with baked goods and bon bons the inmates had never seen during their time at Terezin.  Inmates were given decent clothing to guide visitors along flowered walkways.  Thousands of inmates were deported to Auschwitz  to give an impression of space and comfort.  Immediately after the film and Red Cross visit, all these embellishments disappeared and life returned to normal. Normal was a ghetto housing a population of 55,000 Jews for a community that comfortably held 5000. Normal was the death of 97,297 Czech Jews at Terezin, including 1500 children.  Only 132 children were known to have survived. 

What also survived, however, from Terezin was the artwork that notable Jewish artists of the day buried in the floors and walls, depicting life as it really was.  This underground artist movement was done at great risk to their lives.  They also smuggled art supplies which they gave to the children, resulting in some 6000 artworks by Jewish children who were incarcerated at Terezin during the years 1942-44. For these children, drawing opened up the path to memories of the world from which they had been uprooted, transporting them from a harsh reality to a world of fantasy and imagination where good prevailed over evil. Their drawings expressed the constant hope for a safe return home, often featuring highways and crossroads with signposts to Prague. These artworks were hidden and later retrieved, now on display at Prague’s Jewish Museum, in Israel and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. They also resulted in a book entitled, I Never saw Another Butterfly.

The Lost Wife is a story that will immerse you in a time in history that is horrific, yet paradoxically, the writing is beautiful. From the glamorous ease of life in Prague before the Occupation to the horrors of Nazi Europe, The Lost Wife explores the lasting power of first love, the strength of family loyalty, and the mystery of memory.  In the author’s words, it validates that the human spirit and the artistic spirit cannot be extinguished. Lenka’s and Josef’s story will haunt you long after you read it.