Alyson Richman’s historical novel “The Lost Wife” is based on events in the lives of Jewish artists imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II. This story follows over six decades husband and wife Josef and Lenka, who become separated by the war.
The main narrative is framed by the account of an event both octogenarians attend in 2000. At the rehearsal wedding dinner of Lenka’s granddaughter and Josef’s grandson, Josef is sure that he recognizes Lenka as his first wife when he sees the tattoo on her forearm. Neither protagonist has ever forgotten their first love.
The main story begins in pre-war Prague, offering a view of the privileged world into which the protagonists were born. Medical student Josef plans to become an obstetrician. His doctor father demands that he study and work hard. But even with little leisure time, Josef notice his sister’s friend Lenka, a student at Prague’s Academy of Art. Even though her father’s once-prosperous business is failing due to the pogroms, Lenka is still hopeful about life.
Lenka and Josef marry, but Lenka chooses to stay in Prague with her family and wait while Josef leaves to try to get them all sponsored. Josef has been unable to do this by 1942, and Lenka and her family are deported from Prague to Terezin. Lenka is enslaved there in the Lautscher art and technical departments.
The fictional account of how Lenka’s artistic talents keep her alive is a reminder of how this desire to create, coupled with artistic gifts, helped some survive the war. The author includes in the novel some actual artists such as Dina Gottliebova, a minor character in this book.
At Terezin artists were made to imitate masters and reproduce masterpieces and ornamental art to fund the Reich. Later Lenka and her family are deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Both Lenka and Josef survive the war, but each has received information that the other has perished. Both remarry and build new families in America. Lenka was rescued and fell in love with an American soldier, married him in Paris and came to the U.S. with him. Lenka and Josef’s experiences in each chapter are seen through their eyes one at a time. The author focuses more on Josef’s rebuilding a new life with his second wife, who has also lost her family, sharing with her an adjustment to long-term grief. The depiction of Lenka’s family, on the other hand, comes off as hurried and without the depth of Josef’s story.
The novel at times is heartbreaking, yet because the author starts their story in the present, with their reunion at their grandchildren’s wedding, there is hope.