The beautiful story begins with an 85 year old man (Josef) attending his grandson’s wedding. At the rehearsal dinner, he meets the bride’s grandmother (Lenka). He recognizes the grandmother to be his long lost wife – the love of his life. Josef and Lenka were the sole survivors of their families during the trauma of World War two. Both had been informed of the other’s deaths and went on the remarry and have children after the war. Josef was reported to have died when the ship to the United States sank and Lenka was on the list of those who died at Auschwitz. After the couple recognize each other, the tale unfolds as Lenka and Josef narrate their stories of loss, horror, hope and love which led them to this rehearsal dinner prior to the wedding of their grandchildren.
Lenka grew up with her parents and sister in Prague. She had an idyllic childhood and when the war began, was a student of an art school. She met and fell in love with Josef, the handsome brother of a friend from school. As the danger to Jewish families started to escalate, Josef and Lenka married and his family secured passage to the United States. Despite encouragement from her husband and her family, Lenka refused to follow her new husband and stayed with her family waiting until Josef could secure their safe passage together.
Before their travel papers could be arranged, Lenka learned that Josef and his family perished during their voyage. As she coped with her grief, the family slowly lost their possessions, then their freedom and was sent to a concentration camp. Lena’s artistic talents were used to paint pictures for the Germans and she learned of an underground collection of paintings which were documenting the treatment in concentration camps. The family struggled but survived in horrible conditions at this camp. Eventually, the parents were designated for transfer to Auschwitz and wishing to stay together, Lenka and her sister volunteered to go also.
Despite atrocities, horror and death, bravery and love prevailed. There were examples of great kindness, bravery and hope in the camps. Beauty lived through artistry, through paintings, through acting and through music. The love of Josef and Lenka survived and remarkably, they were reunited when they were in their 80s at the wedding of their grandchildren.
The epilogue indicates that although the story is fiction, there were true stories woven into this novel. It is important that the experiences of this war are never forgotten so that they are not repeated. I am looking forward to the discussion of this novel at our book club next week. The Lost Wife is the first book choice for 2015.