Chasing The King Of Hearts is a difficult book to categorise.
It’s not a biography of a Holocaust survivor or a memoir in the vein of The Happiest Man on Earth. It’s not fiction either because the woman portrayed in the book did exist and she did experience the events described. Yet it’s not journalism despite author Hanna Krall’s career in newspaper and magazines.
I’ve seen the book described as “a fictionalised true story” but I’m uncomfortable with that descriptor, knowing how many questions were raised about the authenticity of another fictionalised Holocaust account; The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Why does it matter that I define this book? Well it doesn’t really. I’m talking about it only because I’m trying to draw a distinction between Chasing The King Of Hearts and the many other books that are related to the Holocaust.
Kept alive by love
Krall records the astonishing story of a Polish-Jewish woman, Izolda Regenberg (alias Maria Pawlicka) who spent the war in a relentless search for her husband after his arrest. Her single-minded quest sees her assume a false identity and travel through Poland, Austria and Germany at enormous risk to herself and to people she meets along the way.
If I hadn’t known before I started to read Chasing The King Of Hearts that it depicts a true story of a woman, I’d have dismissed it as highly improbable that so many things could happen to one person.
Izolda is beaten and tortured by the Gestapo, “succumbs” to rape as a form of self preservation; works with the resistance; is sent to a forced labour camp and later transported to Auschwitz. And that’s just a selection of her experiences. There’s also her arrest as a suspected prostitute, an escape from a work camp and an encounter with Joseph Mengele.
Survival and guilt
Izolda is one extremely resourceful woman. She escapes the Warsaw ghetto via the sewers, assumes the identity and name of a Polish woman, dyes her hair and wears a scapular to appear as anything but Jewish. She will, it is clear, do anything and everything to remain alive, not for her own sake but because she’s driven by her need to be reunited with her husband.
Against all the odds she finds her husband Shayek (the ‘King of Hearts’ from the title) and survives the war. I’m not giving away any huge secret here — Krall’s narrative of the war years is mixed with short chapters set 25 years in the future. They show an elderly Izolda in Israel surrounded by grandchildren, trying to make sense of her past and disorientated by her new life.
She wants her family to understand why her friends and relatives perished while she survived.
Izolda would like to give lots of good advice to everyone at the table — on how to survive. And it would be hard tof ind a better expert at that. No doubt about it: she is an outstanding specialist at surviving.
But her grand-daughters don’t speak Polish and her knowledge of Hebrew isn’t up to the task of conveying the guilt she feels.
She knows she could have intervened when she saw her mother-in-law among a group of prisoners destined to be shot. Knows also that she could have helped others survive but didn’t because that would have compromised her own safety and made it impossible to find her husband.
Ingenuity and resilience keep her alive. But chance and happenstance also play a key role.
If they hadn’t taken her for a prostitute, she wouldn’t have stopped in on Mateusz the caretaker, she wouldn’t have learnt about Mauthausen, she wouldn’t have travelled to Vienna.
If she hadn’t gone to Vienna, she would have stayed in Warsaw. She would have died in the uprising, in the basement, together with her mother.
If she hadn’t escaped from Guben, they would have sent her on with the other women. She would have landed at Bergen-Belsen, in the middle of a typhus epidemic. She would have died of typhus together with Janka Tempelhof. Evidently God had decided she was meant to survive this war.
Or not. He had decided that she was meant to die and she opposed His verdict with all her strength. That’s the only reason she survived. And no God can claim credit. It was hers and hers alone.
It’s an extraordinary story told without embellishment or sensationalism. The horror of the camps is never dwelt upon; simply related in a matter of fact, almost detached manner. Stripped of emotion, Krall’s businesslike style gives this book more power than if she’d opted for a more lyrical or loquacious approach.
An unusual, sometimes strange book of a remarkable woman and the love that kept her alive. Well worth reading.
Chasing The King Of Hearts by Hanna Krall: Footnotes
Hanna Krall is herself a survivor of the Holocaust. Born in Poland in 1935, she evaded deportations to death camps because she was hidden in a cupboard. Her father and mother and most of her close relatives were killed. After the war, she trained as a journalist and worked on a newspaper in Warsaw and a popular magazine Polityka (“Politics”). Since the early ’80s she has worked as a novelist, winning several Polish and international awards.
Chasing the King Of Hearts, published initially in 2006, is her best-known work. An English edition with translation by Philip Boehm, was published by Peirene Press in 2013.
Chasing The King Of Hearts is book eight from my #20booksofsummer2022 list. I’m counting it as book 13 in my #22in22 personal project where I am trying to read 21 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2022.