The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman begins with a happy occasion, the evening before the wedding of two young people. As the guests arrive we are introduced to Lenka and Josef. They are the elderly grandparents from two sides of the family, meeting for the first time, just prior to the wedding of their respective grandchildren from second marriages. The novel then moves back in time to the years just prior to the Second World War, to Prague, a beautiful city on the banks of the Vltava River, spanned by the exquisite Charles Bridge.
Lenka grew up in this beautiful city, the cultured and privileged daughter of a businessman. She wanted for nothing and was able to study art at a prestigious academy. When she was still a student she met Josef, the brother of her classmate. Josef was a medical student who was expected to establish a career before thinking of marriage. But this was a time of rapid change and Lenka and Josef insisted on marriage in order not be parted by the war as their families made plans to leave Europe.
Prague was a city of cafes and museums, a city with a rich Jewish history, and one where its many synagogues still remain. Prague capitulated to the Nazi forces – and the synagogues were saved as museums “of an extinct race”. The whole Jewish Quarter was protected and items confiscated from across Europe were brought to this “museum” in Prague. In fact new synagogues around the world can request religious items from the collection in Prague, as most of the synagogues that were looted by the Nazis were never re-established in the towns and cities where the Jewish population was eliminated. Prior to the Second World War Prague had the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Most were murdered in Auschwitz.
Many were taken first to Terezin, a “model” camp, Hitler’s showcase to the Red Cross, and the world, to demonstrate how well he was treating the Jews. Art was an important part of life at Terezin, painting and postcards were produced by the prisoners and sold in Germany. It is in Terezin that we find Lenka, after being separated from her husband, this is where she is for the rest of the war.
Alyson Richman writes about life in Terezin with a straightforward honesty. The Holocaust is something we must never forget, but this novel is above all else a love story. It is the story of a young couple, falling in love, with all of the wonder and the dreams – and then a separation. Each, finally, believing the other is dead, Josef and Lenka make new lives for themselves after the war, but they never forget that first love, that youthful marriage.
Knowing from the beginning that Josef and Lenka survive the war tempers the tragedy of the story without spoiling the suspense. We are left at the conclusion of the novel, wondering if they will somehow resume their lives together, and so pleased that they have found each other again.