Books by Olly Komenda-Soentgerath

IN THE SHADOW OF PRAGUE by Olly Komenda-Soentgerath
Released: Nov. 5, 1996

A memoir of personal suffering that founders on its blindness to larger questions of history and morality. Komenda-Soentgerath is a poet, and her story is one worth telling. Why, then, is this volume so unsatisfying? A wooden translation from the German is partly to blame. But the deeper reason lies in an unavoidable comparison with the most compelling Holocaust memoirs, personal narratives that rise to universality. Komenda-Soentgerath's story is, to a fault, entirely personal. The narrative follows her sudden arrest as a young woman by Czech revolutionary guards in the period immediately following the end of WW II (she was of German origin and lived in a Prague neighborhood favored by the Nazis), and describes her internment in a variety of camps over the next year and a half. Through a combination of sheer good fortune and the decent and even chivalrous behavior of some fellow Czechs, she was eventually released. In a final stroke of luck, the author and her mother obtained the visas necessary to escape the uncertainties of Czechoslovakia, and Komenda-Soentgerath joined her German fiancÇ in Cologne. One of the most striking aspects of this account is the fact that, while it is surely a story of hardship and acute dangers, what stays with the reader is the behavior of the Czechs who tried to aid the author. More than once she was safeguarded from rape by men who watched over her. But we can't judge whether this was the result of Czech manners or of a deep dissatisfaction with the Communist regime, because Komenda- Soentgerath never thinks to pursue such questions. In fact, the broader political context of the war, the Holocaust, and the postwar period are entirely lacking. Such failures make this memoir seem merely self-absorbed. Curiously, it was awarded a special prize by the German Ministry of the Interior this year. Read full book review >