Welcome to my Sunday Book Review. Today I’m reviewing Eva Hnizdo’s historical fiction book, taken from memoir – Why Didn’t They Leave? . This book was right up my reading alley. The book begins in the late 1930s Czechoslovakia just as WWII is heating up. A family saga that takes us into the life of three generations of women – Franzi, her daughter Magda, and spans through the decades of change into the early 2000’s as told by Magda’s daughter, Zuzana. This is a story of life-altering change, fear, humanity, and how each generation of women coped with war and its devastating effects on body, mind, and spirit, and an understanding for Zuzana born of another generation, struggling to learn why her relationship was strained with her mother from resentments to a final understanding.
You can’t ask for asylum in another country just because your mother drives you nuts, so when 19-year-old Zuzana flees from communist Czechoslovakia to England in 1972, she says she just wants freedom. Her relationship with her mother, Magda – a Holocaust survivor who lost most of her family in the concentration camps – is toxic and Zuzana finds happiness in London with a loving husband and beautiful son.
But when her mother dies, Zuzana is crushed by guilt and feels an overwhelming urge to discover more about her family’s tragic history. So, she embarks on a life-changing journey, discovers some incredible stories and tries to answer the question which haunts her: Why didn’t they leave?
“Eva Hnizdo’s Why Didn’t They Leave illuminates the lives of one extended family from the beginning of Naziism. With meticulous detail and heart-wrenching scenes Hnizdo offers answers through her characters’ actions as to why some chose to remain in their homeland and others fled. A story filled with history and heartache… survival and hope.” – Julie Maloney, author and founder/director of Women Reading Aloud
“Eva Hnizdo has turned her own story into a gripping work of fiction that follows a secular Czech Jewish family’s fortunes during World War Two through communism to a multi-cultural life in Britain. Her book says much about prejudice and tolerance, survivors’ guilt and the emotional challenges of motherhood, all through the voice of her extrovert and sexy heroine.” – Brigid Grauman, journalist and author of Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre
“Zuzana is haunted by the choices that her family made during the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and later during the Communist regime. Her discoveries make for a compelling story of loyalty, love, and courage.” – Jacqueline Sheehan, author
Eva Hnizdo is a Jewish Czech, born in Prague in 1953. She is the granddaughter of a man who lost his life by deciding not to emigrate in 1938, and a daughter of parents who, after surviving the Holocaust, spent most of their adult lives under an oppressive communist regime. Eva studied medicine at Charles University in Prague and became a doctor. She escaped to the West in 1986 and obtained political asylum in the UK in 1987 with her husband and two sons. She worked as a full-time GP partner at the same surgery in Watford for twenty-three years. Now retired, she spends her time writing.
My 5 Star Review:
Magda is 13, it’s 1940 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The Germans are taking over the country and Magda and her brother Oskar have already been booted from school, while their mother is sewing yellow Stars of David on their clothing. At first Magda thinks the stars look cool, then quickly realizes after getting pushed and shoved on the street, the star is a calling card for attention. Magda’s family was privileged and Magda’s mother Franzi and her husband Bruno did well with buying off SS agents by giving them many family possessions to avoid deportation to Theresienstadt, but by 1942 her family was finally deported. Some survived, some didn’t. When liberation finally came, Magda and her mother lived through the brutal and lean times and were lucky to be given back their home in Czechoslavakia.
Magda at 18 reinserts herself back into the school system and studies hard to graduate high school after missing four years of school and succeeds. She marries Mirek after she graduates and they live with her mother Franzi. Franzi mourns the loss of her husband, her son and all others while Magda wants to go on, avoiding the memories and deaths. By 1948 communism was taking over the Czech oslovakia and government was taking over private businesses, those who didn’t comply were sent to jails. It was like war was back but within their own country. Magda and Mirek were urged to leave in the late 40s, but Magda didn’t want to leave her mother. By 1952 they were stuck there. Anyone caught trying to leave the country was jailed.
In 1953 Magda gave birth to daughter Zuzana and was happy to let her mother Franzi do everything and look after her daughter while she kept occupied, entrenched in her job. By this time Mirek was already cheating on moody Magda. Magda decided she didn’t want her daughter to be Jewish so she convinced her unwilling husband to have Zuzana baptized to protect her from being a persecuted Jew, as anti-semitism was running rampant even after the war, especially while Czechoslovakia was under communism. When Zuzana was age 9, Mirek left Magda. He was tired of her whining and lack of interest in cultural things he liked to do. And he wasn’t happy about not giving their daughter a religion to practice, as Magda only wanted the baptism to protect her child from future incidence of anti-semitism, without teaching her about any religion.
In the mid 60s, Magda went to visit Bavaria. She was stunned at all the beautiful goods for sale in stores – something they didn’t have in the Czechoslovakia. Her pent up anger at Germans had her stealing from stores because she felt entitled after the Germans seemed to have stolen much more from her. Her passive- aggressive anger lingered.
By 1964, Zuzana was a young teenager who protested all her mother’s good intentions for her. Magda tries to send Zuzana for dance lessons but Zuzana doesn’t like it, doesn’t like girlie things or dresses. Magda wants to give her daughter everything she didn’t have, but Zuzana is rebellious. Zuzana prefers wearing pants and reading books to dresses and parties. Magda is often bitter at her daughter’s reactions to all her plans for her, as though Magda wanted to live what she missed out on vicariously through her daughter. Magda often mumbles to herself that her daughter doesn’t know how lucky she is to have access to clothes, classes and adventures as Magda internally remembers her time imprisoned during the Holocaust. But Magda stays firm in her decision not to tell Zuzana about her imprisonment or how so many family members actually died in the Holocaust. She never even told Zuzana they were really Jewish.
Part two of the book is Zuzana’s story in the year beginning back at 1966, til the early 2000s. Now married Zuzana with a 13 year old son, Adam, tells her husband Harry that she changed schools when she was a teenager where she could learn more languages, adding that her mother got her in through black market connections, which she reiterates was really such a thing.
In 1967 Zuzana’s Uncle Otto and his wife came back to Czechoslovakia to visit his remaining family and he went to the synagogue with Zuzana, her mother and grandmother Olga. This was the first time Zuzana realized that it was not only the communist anti-fascists who were killed in the war, but innocent people, including her own family. Until then, Zuzana had been sheltered from knowing about war and the fact that she was an actual Jew. As an avid book reader, Zuzana began to read ‘different’ books that were starting to appear on the shelves – stories about the Holocaust.
As a late teen, Zuzana left the country, organized by her rich Uncle Otto and moved to England where she went to university and lived out her dreams of freedom, education, meeting people from different races and falling in love with her to be black husband Harry who became a pharmacist.
Zuzana felt she didn’t love her mother because Magda nagged her all the time and never gave her daughter a compliment, almost trying so hard to force her daughter to do the things Magda never had the chance to do. The tension remained between mother and daughter throughout the story until Magda’s ultimate death, when Zuzana learned from Uncle Otto what really happened to their family during the war, and this opened up a world of curiosity for Zuzana about her real heritage inspiring her desire to travel to America to meet the sparse family who survived the war and ultimately, moved to America. Then Zuzana gets the rude awakening about how her mother survived and the PTSD effect it left on Magda that made her become the way she was. She meets up with aunts, uncles and cousins who were survivors and descendants of survivors, and her new discoveries give her a new sense of why her mother acted the way she did, discovering her mum not wanting to talk of what she lived was a shield for herself and the PTSD she suffered through the rest of her life from what she lived through. Zuz learns that she shouldn’t have judged her mother and once Magda dies, Zuz’s grief becomes overwhelming. As Zuzana begins to have regrets in this new appreciation for her mother, we begin to learn the true effects the war had on this one family.
This is a story about a family caught up in the brink of war, during the war, and their lives in the aftermath. It deals with racism, anti-semitism, communism, humanitarianism and inhumanity. Fascinating on many levels with the intricately woven characters and going deep learning how and why these people were shaped. Yes it takes place during the Holocaust, but it’s about people’s individual lives, living through hell, and how they become after. This is the story of one once large family torn by war, how they survived, why some left in time, and why some chose to stay behind.