Novels on the Holocaust are always difficult reading on an emotional level, and this one was no exception. Richman’s writing is simple and evocative, intimate and universal, and I got lost in the world of her two tragic lovers while sobbing at the horrors she depicted in the Nazi concentration camps Terezin and Auschwitz. Although told as a love story, Richman gives us a tale of genuine heroes, Jewish artists and musicians who struggled to keep their humanity amidst inhumanity, and who fought to get the truth about the camps out to a world largely oblivious to what they were enduring.
Richman begins her book when octogenarians Josef and Lenka re-discover each other at their grandchildren’s wedding, more than a half-century after their romance and whirlwind marriage ended in separation caused by the Nazi occupation of Prague. Richman then takes us back to the beginning, alternating the tales of the two lovers, each of whom came to believe the other dead and eventually settled for comfortable but fundamentally passionless marriages. They are now widow and widower, living through the lives of their children and grandchildren and dreaming of their lost loves, until fate brings them together.
But the real story is Lenka’s, who as a young bride insisted on staying behind with her family in Prague while Josef and his family got visas to escape the impending Nazi invasion and flee to the U.S. Lenka and her family are unable to get out in time, and are swept, along with thousands of other European Jews, into the Terezin camp in Czechoslovakia, where Lenka’s artistic training places her with other draftsmen and artists who work for the Nazis during the day, but numerous of whom dedicate themselves to secretly documenting the horrors of the camp through smuggled paintings, sketches and cartoons.
Richman gives us sensitive portraits of many of these unsung heroes, while documenting the transformation of Terezin into a way-station for those—like Lenka and her family—who are eventually shuttled to the Nazi work-camps and death camps. Lenka’s heroism is not the stuff of legends, but is the everyday heroism of living with honor and passion under even the most horrific and soul-deadening conditions. Josef’s story is that of the millions of Jews who managed to escape the Holocaust, but not its consequences.
Richman’s novel is a simple one, a love story wedded to a horror tale that the world can never be reminded of too often.