- Farewell to Prague, by Miriam Darvas
Farewell to Prague launches immediately into the violence of 1933 Germany. By page three the six-year-old Darvas has witnessed the brutal murder of her classmates and neighbors. Shortly she and her family are fleeing across the border to Prague. Again and again there is loss and luck. In Prague Darvas and her family find comparative peace. She resumes her childhood, one enriched by rounds of salon-like days with artists and intellectuals. Then, in 1939, the Germans invade and the terror resumes. Her meticulous account of escape and travail is a page-turner. Eventually Darvas is spirited by benevolent saviors across a mountainous frontier, and makes a complex passage to England. She has grown up quickly. For pure narrative, her memoir makes good reading. There are daring escapades throughout Darvas’ story. By the end of her book, she is a young [End Page 139] woman working for the U.S. Army, moving through postwar Europe. She is trying to make sense of all the changes, finding out what happened to friends and neighbors. We, as readers, are imposing our questions about justice, cosmic balance sheets, and Holocaust and refugee literature in general.
As with many such histories, this is a story of colossal good and bad fortune, of miraculous escape. It is a juxtaposition of the best traits of individual people with the collective horror wrought by a murderous technological and political regime. Are survivors the lucky ones? Do we say yes only because the dead don’t speak? Sensing the outlines of the massive scale of human cruelty and suffering in the Holocaust, we read about Miriam Darvas as she has the chance to grow and be educated in a girls’ school in England while the war rages across the channel. The questions she raises remain consistent, even while her maturation allows her to begin to respond. “Who were these Nazis, this Gestapo, this Hitler who were in such relentless pursuit of my family for no reason I could understand?” she asks. “The smouldering anger in my veins turned to a fury of frustration. I wanted to kill them all but felt chained, incapable of doing anything against this might of machines and men.”
When Darvas finally discovers her capacity, as a U.S. Army Censorship expert, she moves with bravery through Europe, seemingly fearless as she encounters refugees and former enemies. Among a group of displaced Germans near the Czech border, she listens as one man talks to her: “‘I’m just a butcher. I knew nothing of what was going on,’ he said, tears streaming down his face. That was the theme of every German I had met. Not one admitted to knowing anything about what had happened . . .”
After the horror of the combat comes the modern horror: the bureaucrats. As former officers people the checkpoints of Europe, the battle, formerly waged with food and bullets, becomes the battle of papers and waiting. In a final irony, Darvas is able to move toward America because she is German born; her Czech passport is useless, since the Czech quota is closed, while the former enemy has no limitation.
Miriam Darvas took advantage of all the luck that befell her. She learned languages and survived the Holocaust largely without physical trauma. She had an inner resourcefulness that helped her, and connections to people who did likewise. And she lost her family, her friends, two homelands, her culture, and her childhood. As adults, we tend to try to use our lives to compensate for the shortcomings of our own childhoods. One reads on the book jacket that Darvas continued to study and travel, lived as a politically active woman in California, and raised a family. In a sense, Farewell to Prague is but the first half of a larger issue of how people respond to the Holocaust. There is a question of how normalcy is reasserted in people’s lives for whom there was seemingly little normalcy to begin with.
But that is not the trajectory of this volume. Here we...