Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Lost Wife, In Which We Learn Once Again the Evils of the Holocaust

If there is one era of human history that has been well documented and analyzed and memorialized in books and film, it is the Holocaust.  And rightfully so.  The tragic events of that time, perpetrated with such callous disregard for all that is good and right about the world, deserves to be kept alive in our memories, if only to remind us never to let the evils of racism and xenophobia on that scale happen again.  Of course, it has happened again-in Rwanda, and Darfur, and Srebrenica-but most of the Western world at least has heeded the lessons of the Holocaust and has responded fairly quickly and decisively to any hint of the rise of neo-nazism or ethnic hatred.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I belong to a denomination that believes in radical inclusion.  One of our central beliefs is the right of all people to determine their own path to the divine, to search for their own truth and meaning through a variety of theological or ethical beliefs.  And as a youth advisor, I spend a great deal of my time discussing our faith tradition with my youth.  Whenever we talk about inclusion and acceptance, we inevitably get around to "the Hitler Question", as one of my youth put it.  Would we as accepting, radically inclusive Unitarian Universalists accept Adolf Hitler?  The answer, of course, is that we would never be put into that position, as Hitler would not have been likely to associate with a progressive church that loves Jews and gays, but also because everything he stood for was antithetical to the Untiarian Universalist principles.  But Hitler, for all of his evil, was also perhaps one of the most successful manipulators of public opinion in history.  In The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman, we are offered as proof of this manipulation in the form of the Terezin, a prison work camp for Czechoslovakian Jews that also served as a way station for Jews headed to Aushwitz.

The Lost Wife begins with a recognition-Josef, in his 80s, meets an elderly woman at his grandson's wedding who seems very familiar.  It is not until he sees the numbers tattooed on her arm that he begins to suspect that she could be his long-lost wife, Lenka-a woman he thought died in Auschwitz over 60 years before.  The rest of the novel details their lives in Czechoslovakia, from growing up privileged pre-occupation to the terrible run up to the war, to the camp and to America.  Josef, a doctor, escapes to American, promising to send for Lenka and her family.  Lenka is sent with her sister and parents to Terezin, a work camp that was used as a cover for the Nazi's real agenda-the extermination of the Jewish people.  Because of the chaos that ensued, both Josef and Lenka believed that the other had perished, until that fateful night when Josef's grandson was to marry Lenka's granddaughter.

For me the book was an education in the way the Nazi's attempted to keep the world in the dark about what was happening in the concentration camps.  Built specifically as a ghetto, meant to hold 5,000 people, was home to up to 55,000 at a time.  A film was made about the town, proclaiming to the world that the Nazi's had built a "city for the Jews".  The one time that the Red Cross was allowed to visit, the ghetto was dressed up along the route the officials would take, with prisoners given extra food to make them look healthier, allowed to bathe and given new clothes.  The shop windows were filled with goods, which were immediately taken away when the Red Cross left.

One of the things that made the camp unusual was the incredible number of artists of various kinds that were housed there.  Richman said that part of her motivation behind writing the book was to tell the story of the Holocaust from the point of view of an artist.  Lenka was a painter, and she was given work with other artists making art that the Nazi's sold to help fund their war effort.  But that was not the only art that made it out of the camp.  Many artists stole painting supplies and smuggled out pictures of what was really going on in Terezin.  There were also many musicians in the camp, and there were operas and plays and concerts performed whenever a group could find a secret place to hold them.  The Lost Wife, while being a testament to the enduring power of true love, also shows the triumph of the human spirit and artistic endeavor over pain, fear, powerlessness, and violence.

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