Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall

9781908670106-usFiction – print. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm. Peirene Press, 2013. Originally published 2006. 176 pgs. Purchased.

The title of this novella comes from the actions of the story’s main character, Izolda Regenberg, who is singularity driven to chase down her “King of Hearts”, her husband, Shayek.

As the situation in the Warsaw ghetto grew more desperate, Izolda hatched a plan for herself, Shayek, and his parents and sister to hide in Polish homes outside the ghetto. Only Izolda appeared non-Jewish, though. Her husband’s darker coloring and her in-laws accented Polish made them harder to hide.

When Izolda learns Shayek was deported to Auschwitz, she does everything in her power to be reunited with him, including selling goods on the black market and acting as a message courier under the Polish Catholic name of Maria Pawlicka. Izolda is repeatedly sexually assaulted by Polish police officers who believe but cannot prove she is Jewish as well as physically assaulted by the Gestapo who catch her breaking the law as Maria.

After each assault, though, Izolda simply dusts herself off and continues her quest to locate and free Shayek. Her resolute determination steels her through the worst, including deportation to Auschwitz herself. In fact, her unwavering perseverance constantly had me questioning if this book was fiction or nonfiction.

(The publisher labeled it as fiction but, reading more about Krall, it appears to be based on a true story, which explains the photographs interspersed throughout the novella.)

Although the story is told in present tense, it is occasionally interrupted with information about her life in Israel after the war, particularly her difficulty in understanding Hebrew and in getting her granddaughters to realize the importance of appearing non-Jewish in public. The inclusion of such information does rob the story of suspense; you know Izolda survives and goes on to have children, presumably with Shayek.

But it also demonstrates how all-consuming her goal becomes; even 60 years later, her life is defined by her efforts to save her husband. It is unclear if her strong feelings are reciprocated, even with the context of life after the Holocaust, which makes her bravery all the more astonishing.

By and large, the story is devoid of emotions, unexpected given the publisher’s claim that this is a “beautiful love story”. (I worry whenever I see Holocaust and love story used to describe a novel. Too often, those stories end up using the Holocaust as a story crutch. Not the case here.)

There are few opportunities to really understand Izolda’s inner feelings or contemplate her choices as the pace moves quickly with sixty years compressed into under 180 pages. But I still found the story to be moving – one that I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.

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