The resilience of the human heart – an Interview with Alyson Richman, author of The Lost Wife, a love story about an artist who survives WWII’s horrors. Richman will be a featured speaker at the JCC Book Fest on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011.
We may not realize the price that our storytellers pay for bringing forth the stories of our history in new ways, for new ears. We can be grateful that as gifted a storyteller as novelist Alyson Richman chose to write about a love that survives the Holocaust in her newest novel, The Lost Wife.
Deeply in love, newlyweds Josef and Lenka are separated on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. The novel begins with the ending; sixty years later and now widowers of other marriages, they find one another again at the wedding in New York of their respective grandchildren.
Then the story of their past unfolds. As Hitler’s proclamations against Jews make normal life unbearable in Prague, Josef’s family has managed a visa to America, but Lenka, pregnant, an artist, chooses to go with her family to Terezín, (in German, Theresienstadt), a concentration camp where art workshops were kept going for the Nazi propaganda machine, but where an underground artist resistance also took place. The reader is pulled through the horrors of war towards “one sliver of light at the end,” said Richman, who spoke by phone from New York about her just published novel.
Her book is already being well received. She said the Israeli paper Ha’aretz just requested an interview and, she said, “It is going to be translated into Czech, Italian and Portuguese, so far. And that’s before the book has come out – you usually get them after.” Her previous novels have been translated into 12 or 13 other languages.
Q: What drew you to want to write a story about Terezín in the first place?
Richman: This is my fourth novel and 3 of the 4 novels deal with some sort of art historical figure. I love art, my mother is a painter, I majored in art history at Wellesley, and as I was having my second child I was thinking, what am I going to do, I have to do something to keep myself sane, and I began to ask myself, what are the most horrific circumstances under which art can be created?
Q: So you were asking yourself this as you were pregnant?
Richman: Yes, I knew art had been created during the Holocaust, and then I found out about Terezín, about this movement of artists who actually stole supplies and secretly got them to the children and they had their own resistance secretly painting (while doing technical drawings for the Nazis).
And, when I told my husband what I wanted to write about, he said, ‘You’re never going to sell this novel.’ So I realized, if I was going to get my agent behind this, that it had to have a really good love story.
So there I was, five months pregnant, and I looked in the mirror one day and saw my hair was 5 inches too long and I thought, ‘oh, you’re really starting to let yourself go,’ so I thought I would treat myself to a haircut, at this little place, and there I was eavesdropping and I heard this story about a Jewish couple who met at a wedding and realized they had been married sixty years earlier, and I thought ‘oh my goodness, that’s it,’ so it was just a series of dominoes that fell into place. Love stories always seem to be a spark.
Q: Have you had responses from survivors who’ve read the book?
Richman: Yes, I have, and I’m so happy and relieved the response has been so great. And with the Jewish Book Council tour, it feels wonderful to have this big embrace from the Jewish community about the book.
And even my father said that when he read the part where Joseph is on the bus in NY and when he sees a face that’s familiar and he thinks it’s Lenka and is almost haunted by this face, that my father finally understood what his grandmother, my great-grandmother, used to say to him when she’d come back from a day in the city, that, that she thought she saw the face of her sister in the subway crowd. And he started to cry because it was one of the very few things my great-grandmother ever revealed about her life. I didn’t know that, when I saw my great-grandmother she was always so happy to see me, she baked cookies. . . it’s so hard to talk about.
There are so many shades of love in this book. Like the love between Joseph and Amalia, his second wife, it’s not a romantic love like the first love, but there’s survivorship, and there’s a building of another life after the war, and there’s beauty in that too.
Q: Your book describes a play that the children performed at Terezín, Brundibár. And that after that, those who performed in concerts knew they would be deported to Auschwitz and killed. They kept doing it, as an act of defiance?
Richman: Brundibár was an opera written by Hans Krasá, and the children performed it, and it was written as a metaphor. The organ grinder who was this horrible tyrant to the children was supposed to be Hitler, and the children rise up and vanquish him at the end, so it was giving the children the ability to conquer their oppressor, at least on the stage, and the woman who gave me a tour of Terezín, Dagmar Lieblova, she was actually one of the animals who sang in the choir as a child in Terezín then.
Q: How old was she?
Richman: She was a child of ten or eleven. When she and her younger sister went to Auschwitz they made a selection where everyone 13 or older would be with the adults and put in a work detail. Her birthday was misread as 13. She went up to the guard and said ‘I’m twelve,’ and they said ‘you’re thirteen.’ Her sister died then. It wasn’t an act of kindness, it just said that on the sheet.
Q: Some of the most touching moments in the book are between children and adults. The research you did for this book, did it bother you?
Richman: Yes I got terrible insomnia when I started writing this book. Having a baby when I’m writing this, I kept on putting myself every day in the position ‘what if you were the mother’ ‘what if that was your child’ and I would make myself sick.
Q: Maybe you didn’t realize. .
Richman: I don’t think I realized what it was going to become. I just got deeper and deeper into the research, every person who told me they had a relative who was a survivor I went and met, all the oral histories at the Holocaust museum in D.C. I felt like I was drowning in the material but I said that in order to make my characters believable that I myself had to experience the emotions – it took a terrible toll on my health, really.
Q: You’re going to talk when you come here a bit about getting published nowadays.
Richman: Is that a realistic dream? I think it’s very, very, very hard to get a book published. I never want to be one of those teachers that say, ‘don’t do this, ‘ because how sad would the world be if people didn’t create art and write? But, it’s not an easy journey being a writer and I think that what happens is that the people who really stick to it and are really tenacious and talented will publish, but you have to have those three elements. //
Richman will be a featured speaker at the JCC Book Fest on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011 at 2 pm at 5520 Wyoming Blvd, Albuquerque. Reservations online at www.jccabq.org, at the Albuquerque JCC, or call 348-4518.
A shorter print version of this interview appeared in the New Mexico Jewish Link newspaper, October 2011, p. 12.