Arnost Lustig

"Lovely Green Eyes"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka SEP 30, 2002)

Hanka Kaudersova, a 15-year-old Jewish girl from Prague, finds herself transported with her mother, father and brother from Terezin to the Frauenkonzentrationslager (women's concentration camp) at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she works as a cleaner in the hospital. Her mother and brother are sent to the gas chambers and her father commits suicide. The doctor that Hanka works for has fled in disgrace for transplanting "sub-human" Jewish skin onto a German soldier suffering from frostbite. What will happen to Hanka in the morning when she is discovered as a witness to the doctor's crime?

Survival instincts lead her to audition for the German field brothel, and when she lies about her age and ethnicity, passing for an 18-year-old Aryan with cropped ginger hair and green eyes, Hanka is transported again through space and reality to the wintry and bleak Feldpost No. 232 Ost. The prostitutes nickname her "Skinny." None of the women there go by their real names; in an attempt to protect themselves and their identities, the women are called "Beautiful," "Long Legs" and "The Toad," to name a few. Eventually, one or two of the women subtly admit to one another that they, too, are Jewish and are "passing" as Aryan in order to survive. After Skinny is in the camp for just a few days, an officer requests time with the youngest prostitute in the brothel. He is brought to Skinny and renames her "Lovely Green Eyes."

Skinny constantly wrestles internally with the choices she has made. Is it worse to fight for one's life by denying one's true identity, one's heritage? Or is it worse to give up or to wish to die? Are her dead parents and little brother watching her from the afterlife? Are they ashamed of what she is doing with her body and how she is denying her spirit? Will they ever forgive her?

Immediately I sensed that Lustig had either been in the camps or was intimate with someone who had. His perspective on Skinny's daily life in the brothel seem so minutely real, I had no problem imagining that this novel was the true account of a young girl's experiences.

Some of the stronger passages are when the reader can feel Skinny's inexperience and youth. She is constantly observing, learning and watching, still too naïve to do much reacting or responding. She studies the animals that come from the forest -- wolves who attack a body that has been executed by the firing squad, birds that pick at dead rats -- and then follows with descriptions of the German military, with an emotionless observant tone:

When the full moon wasn't hidden by clouds and as long as the stars were shining, the wolves seemed white, with huge silver eyes. They emerged from the darkness, phantoms of the night, enfolded in a kind of unknowing. They moved about the snow-covered wasteland wrapped in a cloak of darkness, illuminated by the moon. They made her aware of what humans lacked: fierceness, the dark rays of night. She admired them and she was afraid of them. Now and then the guards caught them in their searchlights. It was a different light than the ones the wolves were born into. Day and night made no difference to them. They came from lairs in the quarry and among the rocks. They did not recognize frontiers, any more than the Germans did.

Crows were flying across the same night sky. They could not be seen, like the rats and the wolves, only heard. Croaking, howling and whistling pierced the night. Like unintelligible messages, vague prophecies. Something more ancient than man.

In the morning the guards exercised in the snow without shirts, just in trousers. The SS maintenance staff were extending the gym by breaking down the wall between what had been the cowshed and the stables.

Her juxtaposition -- several times throughout the book -- of the animals with the soldiers is in striking contrast with her own more humane struggles and meager existence. When asked questions about her private life and her family, she panics momentarily, afraid of being found out, but plays it cool, creating a very terse answer about her past in Prague. She feels so vulnerable when nude, with the German officers especially, who could learn of her true ethnicity and execute her on the spot. We become acquainted with a few officers who frequent her frozen cubicle, but we know little about the more common enlisted men who fill her days.

Lists of names dissect the passages, generally 12 men's names, the names we are to assume were Lovely Green Eyes' quota for the day. At first, it is sickening to think that this child performed sexual acts for 12 to 15 men each day, let alone the fact that they were "the enemy," but to be honest, after a while, the names became a blur and I imagine that is how they became to Hanka.

The narrator infrequently interjects himself into the story as a boy who has known Hanka for a very long time and is also a survivor of the war. The two of them, along with another friend, survive day to day after the war by going to shelters and soup kitchens and by describing to one another what they are feeling and how they are dealing with the horror of being survivors of mass extinction. Hanka doesn't easily relinquish personal thoughts or feelings, rather, she continues on, protecting her true self, like she did in the camps and in the brothel.

At the opening of this book, Lustig asks, "How many people have secrets that no-one ever discovers?" And in reading the story, I realized how many people must choose to hide their true selves and the secrets of what they endure, especially during a time of crisis like World War II.

As the book drew to a close, I felt drained and sad for Hanka. Although I have read other books (fiction and non-fiction) that dealt with the Holocaust, this was a difficult book to read, probably because Lustig was able to draw a character who seemed so real and so vulnerable. We've all seen those old pictures and films of multitudes of bone-thin prisoners in their striped uniforms, or of mass graves full of nude skeletal bodies. Lovely Green Eyes zooms in on one girl and her very honest and real daily life in the midst of all of that despair. Lustig shares what must have been very personal and difficult to reveal. After all, as the dust jacket tells us, he, too, was a prisoner at Terezin, at Auschwitz, and lastly at Buchenwald. He, too, was Czech. He, too, must have made choices and seen spectacles that, in his normal life, would have been abominable. Thankfully for us, he is able to share his experiences with a wider audience, through a character who hasn't yet found her own voice buried deep down under layers of shame, fear, faith, and instinct.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews


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About the Author:

Arnost LustigArnost Lustig was born in Prague in 1926 and is a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald. Lustig is known as an optimist and this optimism is one of the qualities that has distinguished him among writers of Holocaust literature.

According to Johanna Kaplan in the New York Times Book Review, Czech author Arnost Lustig is "the too-little-known author of over half a dozen works of fiction," including the critically acclaimed A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1974. He has twice won the National Jewish Book Award (for Dita Saxova and The Unloved: From the Diary of Perla S.), in addition to being honored with an Emmy and numerous other awards for his film and television scripts. His works have been translated into more than twenty languages, including German, Spanish, Japanese, Polish, Hebrew, Hindi, Esperanto, French, Estonian, Italian, Norwegian, and Yiddish.

Lustig lives in Washinton, D.C. has been professor of literature at American University since 1973 and is one of two featured subjects in the recently released documentary, Fighter.

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