The Lost Wife

By – October 31, 2011

Alyson Rich­man has craft­ed a pow­er­ful love sto­ry set in Prague as World War II begins. Lenka, a young art stu­dent, falls in love with Josef, who is study­ing med­i­cine. As the Nazis enter the coun­try, the two mar­ry. Josef and his fam­i­ly flee to Amer­i­ca, but Lenka refus­es to leave her par­ents and her sis­ter behind. Her fam­i­ly is sent to Terezin, where she works pro­duc­ing art and tech­ni­cal draw­ings while dream­ing of the hus­band that she will nev­er see again. Josef becomes a suc­cess­ful obste­tri­cian, but he nev­er for­gets the wife that he thought the Nazis killed. Many years lat­er, a chance encounter in New York brings them togeth­er and gives them a sec­ond chance. This nov­el, based on the expe­ri­ences of sur­vivors, is a trib­ute to the pow­er of mem­o­ry and the strength of those who sur­vived and used art to bear wit­ness. It includes a reader’s guide. 

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

Discussion Questions

  1. At its core, The Lost Wife is the love sto­ry between Lenka and Josef. Dis­cuss the deep feel­ings that run between the two. How do you think that the love they shared man­aged to sur­vive the long years of sep­a­ra­tion? Do you think you’d rec­og­nize a loved one after being apart for so long? In what ways do you think the love they shared helped them to sur­vive the atroc­i­ties of the war?

  2. Art and col­or main­tain a great sig­nif­i­cance through­out the course of the nov­el — the green of Josef’s eyes, the red of the straw­ber­ries grow­ing near his family’s coun­try house, and then lat­er, the drab browns and grays of the Terezin and Auschwitz. Dis­cuss how the author’s descrip­tion of col­or affect­ed your per­cep­tion of the novel.

  3. Love is a theme through­out the course of The Lost Wife—not just the love between Lenka and Josef, but also the love between the fam­i­lies, the love shared between Lenka’s moth­er and Lucie, and even the love that devel­ops between those kept at Terezin. Dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of that feel­ing as it is laid out in the book.

  4. In the author’s note, Rich­man reveals that sev­er­al of the char­ac­ters that appear in the book actu­al­ly exist­ed. Did this change your per­cep­tion of the nov­el after you read it?

  5. Despite being over­seas in Amer­i­ca, Josef can nev­er seem to let go of the mem­o­ry of his wife. In what ways did his mem­o­ries of Lenka serve as his own per­son­al jail? What did you think of the rela­tion­ship between Amalia and Josef? Con­sid­er­ing they each were haunt­ed by the death of their fam­i­lies, was it a rela­tion­ship that worked for them or was it a rela­tion­ship pure­ly of sor­row? How does it con­trast with Lenka and Carl’s marriage?

  6. Dina is one of the char­ac­ters that we lat­er learn was based on an actu­al per­son. Dis­cuss her sig­nif­i­cance in Lenka’s life, from when she first meets her on the streets of Prague, to when they recon­nect at Auschwitz. How does Dina’s spir­it help Lenka get through the tri­als of Auschwitz?

  7. Dis­cuss the under­ground painters’ move­ment at Terezin. Why do you think the men were so unwill­ing to allow Lenka to help at first? Was it mere­ly because she was a woman, or do you think they had oth­er rea­sons for want­i­ng to pro­tect her? In what ways did her tak­ing part in the move­ment help shape the course of the rest of the novel?

  8. In their own small way, Lenka and her moth­er attempt­ed to main­tain a sense of nor­mal­cy for the chil­dren at Terezin with their art class­es and pil­fered paints. What oth­er instances of nor­mal’ life did you see at Terezin, and lat­er Auschwitz? In what ways do you think that these efforts to main­tain hap­pi­ness even dur­ing hard­ship inform the pow­er of the human spir­it? How did you react to the children’s cre­ation of the opera Brundibar? Like Brundibar, Schacter’s Requiem is also an act of defi­ance against the Nazis. Do you think such an act was worth the pun­ish­ment of death?

  9. What did you think of Lenka’s deep need to keep her fam­i­ly togeth­er despite all odds? In what ways do you think the course of her and Marta’s lives may have been altered had they opt­ed to remain at Terezin, instead of fol­low­ing their par­ents to Auschwitz?

  10. A lot of the his­to­ry of the plight of Jews dur­ing World War II in Europe, and par­tic­u­lar­ly the role of artists dur­ing the war, played a role through­out The Lost Wife. How did the research affect your read­ing of the nov­el? Did you learn new things about World War II and what hap­pened to Jew­ish fam­i­lies? Were you inspired, after learn­ing that some of the char­ac­ters were real, to do any addi­tion­al read­ing of your own?