Top positive review
329 people found this helpful
on September 17, 2011
If you are expecting a conventional Holocaust novel with a love story as the background of the plot, this is the wrong book for you. Alyson Richman has created a heart-wrenching story of Terezin and Auschwitz through visual arts of the main female character and the profound pain of the central male character. Lenka Maisel, a beautiful young girl, lived in Prague with her gentle, intelligent father, artist mother and younger sister. She had wonderful friends, a comfortable life and was talented enough to be accepted at an elite Art academy. She met her true love, Josef Kohn, also from an accomplished family. Their only problem was they lived in Prague and they were Jewish.
The beautiful city of Prague with its elegant landscape and historical architecture was one of Hitler's conquests. As in most European cities during World War II, the Jews were the scapegoats, and the Germans enacted the Nuremberg laws giving the Jews little freedom and removed all their worldly possessions to fill their illicit coffers. Despite this despicable course of action, Josef and Lenka marry quickly. Fleeing the Nazis was the only salvation for any European Jew. Josef's family had secured exit visas; Lenka's family had no money or possessions to buy their way out of the Czech homeland.
What follows is not the predictable ghetto/concentration camps horrors, it is more of palpable images. From the perspective of an artist, Richman gives the reader the beautiful, radiant red and orange colors of Prague, the countryside, and happiness to the grays, blacks and fetid odors of the camps. Her writing evokes the smells of flowers and the stench of the train cars, barracks and the wretched illnesses prevalent in the prisoners. It is well known that art and music became the only enjoyment allowed prisoners juxtaposed to the Nazi's enjoyment of sapping the Jews' intellect to destroy them.
I have read many Holocaust fiction and non-fiction books but Richman tackles the subject with a mixture of an undying passionate love with grotesque carnage and humiliation. I could feel Lenka and Josef's singular love and also the absolute horror of Nazi's atrocities. It is not easy to read. The author gives us the day-to-day operation of the camps provoking devastating sadness as the terror escalated. There are secondary characters, connecting the plot, who are unique and serve to flesh out a balance of personalities. The only weakness was Richman's abbreviated attention to Lenka's second marriage in contrast to Josef's years with Amalia.
Josef's profession as an obstetrician served as a sharp contrast from the death knell of the war. Survivor's guilt seems to prevent Lenka and Josef from fully enjoying their continued existence. The reader once again learns about the enduring love of family at all costs and remains horrified of what others are capable of doing to extinguish their lives.