Published by Peirene Press 1 September 2013
168 pp, paperback, £12.00
Reviewed by Alison Burns
What is it to survive mass persecution?
How are you to live, when so many have died?
How do you stop asking, ‘What if?’, ‘What if?’
In Hanna Krall’s extraordinary Holocaust novel – first published in Warsaw in 2006 and now beautifully translated by Philip Boehm – Izolda Regensberg, who calls herself ‘a specialist at surviving’, is still having conversations in her head with her dead friends and family decades later.
One of the most striking things about this novel (and there are many) is its voice: matter-of-fact and profoundly ironic, it describes horrors that most people still struggle to comprehend.
Izolda moves from the Warsaw ghetto to camps to prison cells and finally to an SS officer’s abandoned apartment in Vienna, as she searches for her husband, Shayek. Along the way, she loses her teeth; is beaten, starved and tortured; sells her body and anything else she can lay her hands on. At one point in all this, she tries to remember how her husband ate ice-cream. Later, in a moment of optimism, she feels happy:
She doesn’t know where the train is headed.
She doesn’t have any documents.
She doesn’t have anything but a German worker’s overcoat, a Hungarian Jew’s stockings and a section of Jewish dentures with a gold tooth.
She’s riding a night train through Germanyand feels such joy that she starts to cry.
The golden young man she meets on page one is not the same when she retrieves him from Mauthausen. Nonetheless, they renew their married life, and create a family which in some ways replicates, although it can never replace, the ones they have lost. Izolda lives in the past. Shayek’s present is very nearly demolished.
Where did Hanna Krall find the resources for Izolda’s clear-eyed clarity? We are told that she survived World War II by hiding in a cupboard. We are also told that this is a true story. We can only guess at what she and countless others went through. If we want to make sure that their suffering is remembered, then this novel is essential reading.