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Prague-born Lustig The Bitter Smell of Almonds adds this chronicle of a resilient teenage girl to his highly regarded oeuvre of spare and haunting novels rooted in the Holocaust.
The "lovely green eyes" of the title belong to year-old Hanka "Skinny" Kaudersova, a shy, ginger-haired girl and the only member of her family to avoid death in Auschwitz. At first a cleaner in a camp hospital lab where the doctor sterilizes her , she continues to evade extermination by lying about her age and her heritage passing herself as Aryan and is requisitioned as a prostitute in the German military field brothels.
In a typical workday, Hanka services at least a dozen soldiers, many of whom are distraught and violent. Lustig presents the brothel clients as fully rounded characters, both viciously prejudiced against Jews and kind to the Czech, they think girl whose body they use. Constant hunger, freezing temperatures and disease further weaken Skinny's spirit, but as the war ends, she realizes she must search for her place in a world built on ashes.
A rabbi, who is himself drowning in despair, attempts to offer her solace, but she's unable to shed her shame and guilt. Back in Prague, agonized by nightmarish memories, she settles in with a group of survivors and meets the narrator, whose declaration of love eventually thaws her heart. Lustig's prose is evocative at the same time it is sparse, even during harrowing scenes of physical and mental cruelty.
Aided by a fine translation, this is a stunning work, worthy of comparison to those by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. In imagining the ordeal of a young girl "who had looked on the devil 12 times a day," Lustig has created an unforgettable character within whom "remembrance and oblivion contended," but who still summons the courage to affirm life.
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Lovely Green Eyes: A Novel
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Lovely Green Eyes
When her family is deported to Auschwitz, her mother, father and younger brother are sent to the gas chamber. By a twist of fate, Hanka is faced with a simple alternative: follow her family, or work in an SS brothel behind the eastern front. She chooses to live, her Aryan looks allowing her to disguise the fact that she is Jewish. As the German army retreats from the Russian front, Hanka battles cold, hunger, fear and shame, sustained by her hatred for the men she entertains, her friendship with the mysterious Estelle, and her fierce, burning desire for life. Lovely Green Eyes explores the compromises and sacrifices that an individual may make in order to survive, the way a woman can retain her identity in the face of appalling trauma, and the value of human life itself. This is a remarkable novel, which soars beyond nightmare, leaving the reader with a transcendent sense of hope. Czech-born Arnost Lustig, an Auschwitz survivor, writes about the Holocaust with such merciless clarity that at times one is ashamed to be human".
LOVELY GREEN EYES
Fifteen-year-old Hanka Kaudersov has ginger hair and clear, green eyes. When her family is deported to Auschwitz, her mother, father and younger brother are sent to the gas chamber. By a twist of fate, Hanka is faced with a simple alternative: follow her family, or work in an SS brothel behind the eastern front. She chooses to live, her Aryan looks allowing her to disguise the fact that she is Jewish.