My thanks to Rachel Gul of Over the River PR for my spot on this tour.
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The award-winning novel by Czech author Kateřina Tučková—her first to be translated into English—about the fate of one woman and the pursuit of forgiveness in a divided postwar world.
1945. Allied forces liberate Nazi-occupied Brno, Moravia.
For Gerta Schnirch, daughter of a Czech mother and a German father aligned with Hitler, it’s not deliverance; it’s a sentence. She has been branded an enemy of the state. Caught in the changing tides of a war that shattered her family—and her innocence—Gerta must obey the official order: she, along with all ethnic Germans, is to be expelled from Czechoslovakia. With nothing but the clothes on her back and an infant daughter, she’s herded among thousands, driven from the only home she’s ever known. But the injustice only makes Gerta stronger, more empowered, and more resolved to seek justice. Her journey is a relentless quest for a seemingly impossible forgiveness. And one day, she will return.
Spanning decades and generations, Kateřina Tučková’s breathtaking novel illuminates a long-neglected episode in Czech history. One of exclusion and prejudice, of collective shame versus personal guilt, all through the eyes of a charismatic woman whose courage will affect all the lives she’s touched.
Especially that of the daughter she loved, fought for, shielded, and would come to inspire.
Tags: historical fiction, WWII
- Format: ebook, paperback, hardcover, audiobook, audio cd
- Size: 459 pages
- Publisher: Amazon Crossing
- Publication Date: 01 February 2021
- Book Links:
Excerpt from GERTA by Kateřina Tučková
translated into English by Véronique Firkusny
The edges of the rough road crumble into the ditch. Grass grows through the gravel, and the wheels of the baby carriage bump over the stones. Her left foot has just slipped on the loose pebbles; there’s a dull throbbing in her ankle; perhaps she’s pulled a tendon. She tries to avoid putting her full weight on the foot. For several hours now, they’ve been walking slowly, shuffling along, their baby carriages side by side. From time to time, they steady each other, take turns pushing. For a long while, it’s been impossible to make out the road clearly. Only every so often do the beams of a flashlight or the headlights of a truck sweep over them, but then they huddle even tighter, hasten their steps, and throw their coats over the carriages to cover the children.
She can’t tell for certain how long they’ve been walking. It seems as though their journey has taken ages. And yet dawn hasn’t even broken, so it can’t have been more than a few hours. She’s tired, and so is her companion. Should she try to stop and rest?
A few times they have passed people sitting either on the ground or on the suitcases they have been dragging along. Several times they have also seen one of the armed youths rush over and bash in these people’s heads with the butt of a rifle. She was scared to stop. In spite of the stitch in her side and the pain in her left foot, she forced herself to keep taking steps.
The young mother walking beside her was whispering about being thirsty.
Gerta said nothing. She had hidden away some water for herself and her child, but she couldn’t offer any, not knowing what still lay ahead. Although she, too, was thirsty, she remained silent and shuffled along, step by step, only God knew to where.
God? She had lost faith in him long ago. Once upon a time, she had prayed to him, begged him to help her, to do something—anything— that would have changed her life. Then, little by little, she realized that God wasn’t about to do a thing for her. But by then, it was too late.
From that moment on, she had stopped praying and didn’t think about God anymore. She wanted to be self-sufficient, even at times like this. Because God had no idea where they were driving her; only those crazed schoolboys knew, and maybe in the end, not even they. Those harebrained brats—she choked with rage; their voices would reach her and then disappear again, becoming lost in the cries of the people ahead of her. A few times, she caught a glimpse of them riding in the backs of passing trucks. With their upraised, tangled weapons, they reminded her of Medusa and her twisted hair of snakes. A seething, raging Medusa, a murderess with the sinister, drunken maw of vulgar riffraff. Look upon them and you would die. You would turn to stone, or they would shoot you. She hated them, but that was all she could do. Only hate. And above all, not let it show if she wanted to survive. She walked meekly beside her companion and kept her mouth shut. The night was inching toward a gray morning, and ahead of her stretched a column of quiet, exhausted people. The sounds of their steps, the swish of winter coats, and words uttered in low voices were interrupted only by the shouts of the guards, the moans of the wounded, and occasional gunshots. How many? Gerta could no longer keep count.
Where exactly had this nightmare started?
By the time the flowers had fallen to the bottom of her mother’s open grave, everyone was already sensing it, as if they already knew. Even her father was getting anxious, although he still blindly believed.
When Gerta shot him a sidelong glance, she saw how he was holding himself together, how he was clenching all the muscles in his face, keeping his eyes fixed and then hiding them behind a profusion of blinking, how hard he was trying not to cry. But he should cry, thought Gerta, he should. He should smear the top of his bald head, from which the last wisps of fair hair were receding, with the earth from her mother’s grave; he should rub the earth onto his face, let it mix with his tears, and, above all, cry for forgiveness. That he should do. Not stand there preening in his uniform like a pigeon on a perch with his chest puffed out, watching her mother’s coffin disappear under clods of dirt. Stop! Gerta wanted to cry out, but Friedrich held her back. He grabbed her arm so abruptly, it startled her. Was Friedrich not crying either? But of course, how could he, faithful image of his father that he was? Gerta looked again into the deep hole, where by now the dark gray of the coffin was showing through only in spots. It had been a modest funeral. But this, after all, was not where it had started. This funeral was just one link in a chain of calamities that had come month by month, year after year. All through the war.
And yet the life ahead of her had once seemed so full of promise. And not just her life—Friedrich’s, too, and her father’s and her mother’s, and Janinka’s and Karel’s; all of their lives had been meaningful and had made sense. They had all been moving as a unified whole toward a future, the contours of which Gerta could make out perfectly. Yet by the winter of 1942, when Mother disappeared beneath the Schnirch headstone, that vision of the future was already disintegrating. The last semblance of security would be trampled by the mob on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1945. But first, a whole series of other events was still to come.
Kateřina Tučková is a Czech playwright, publicist, biographer, art historian, exhibition curator, and bestselling author of Gerta and The Žítková Goddesses. She has won several literary awards, including the Magnesia Litera Award (for both Gerta and The Žítková Goddesses), the Brno City Award for literature, the Josef Škvorecký Award, and the Czech Bestseller Award. Kateřina is also the recipient of the Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Award by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and of the Premio Libro d’Europa at the Book Fair in Salerno, Italy. Between 2015 and 2018, she was a founder and first president of the Meeting Brno festival, focusing on international and intercultural dialogue. Kateřina Tučková currently lives in Prague and Brno, Czech Republic. Her books have been translated into seventeen languages. Gerta is her first to be translated into English. In December 2020, her novel Bílá Voda will be published in Czech.
- Website: ww.katerina-tuckova.cz/en/
by Véronique Firkusny
My initial reading of Vyhnání Gerty Schnirch happened within the first year or so of its publication in Czech – 2009/2010. My Czech cousin Eva, who lives in Brno, brought me the book when she came to visit me in New York, and I started reading and couldn’t put it down. I finished in a matter of a few days.
Both of my parents grew up in Brno, albeit at very different times: my father, a concert pianist, moved back as a three year old with his mother and two older siblings after his father abruptly died in 1915. Blacklisted by the Nazis for his close ties with the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, he fled in 1939 and returned only after the war was over in 1946, to play at the first Prague Spring Festival. At that point he hoped to stay and make his home in Prague but had to return to the U.S. for a concert/lecture tour followed by engagements in South America throughout the summer and fall of 1947. Hoping to be back in Czechoslovakia for Christmas and engaged to play a series of benefit concerts in early 1948, fate intervened: he tripped on the sidewalk in Buenos Aires and fell, breaking his arm, so travel and concerts had to be postponed. By then the political situation was again precarious, as the Soviets had taken control of Czechoslovakia’s Democratic government. With the mysterious death, generally thought to have been murder by defenestration, on March 10, 1948 of Jan Masaryk, Minister of Foreign Affairs and a close friend of my father’s, it became clear that a return would be impossible and my father settled in New York, in time becoming a U.S. citizen.
My mother, on the other hand, was born in Brno during one of the last Allied air raids in My grandmother told me that in solidarity, the entire family—my grandfather, an Auntie, a Great-grandmother, and an older sister—did not go down into the basement shelter but stayed upstairs in the first floor apartment while the birth was happening.
There was no doctor but a midwife, who saved my mother’s life—she came out turning blue, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, and the midwife pushed her back in, unhooked the cord and pulled her back out again. I never met my father’s mother, who died in 1966, but I was very close to my maternal grandparents, who were basically the same generation as my father—Czechs of the First Republic. When they would get together and reminisce, it always fascinated me how colorful their recollections of the city of Brno were, and how different from my mother’s—while they would wax nostalgic, my mother was filled with bitterness. If she never set foot there again, she used to say, she would not be sorry.
Gerta is set in the Brno where my father and three grandparents lived during the brief First Republic (1918-1938), and where my mother was born and grew up. I had always been interested in knowing more about what Brno had been like, and by 2009 had even visited the city several times, but no one had ever talked about what happened to the
ethnic Germans in the immediate aftermath of the war. One time only did I hear my father respond to a comment saying: it was not right, what was done to those Germans. This episode of history leapt up from the pages and I read with bated breath. By the time I finished the book, I had found the events so disturbing that I gave the book away
to a Czech and Slovak library. But I couldn’t get the story out of my head, so several years later, I asked my cousin to buy me another copy. I read it again and thought: this is a novel that needs to be translated into English. In 2016, I was invited to contribute to Lit Hub a title and short description of a novel for a list of books by Czech female authors who had not yet been published in English, and say why the work deserved to be translated. My choice was instant: Kateřina Tučková’s Vyhnání Gerty Schnirch (The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch). My next trip to Brno I made some inquiries, trying to find out if an English translation was in the works. To my amazement, I learned that at that
point there wasn’t. The novel had been such a best-seller in the Czech Republic that everyone was sure there would be translators beating down the door to get at it, but it hadn’t happened. I couldn’t believe my luck: I wanted to have a go at this translation myself.
At some point during fall 2017, I started to translate the novel on spec, having mentioned to Tučková’s agent, Dana Blatná, that if they had no one else in mind, I would love to do it. Sometime around Christmas I got word: Amazon Crossing had expressed interest in an English translation based on the Lit Hub article, and was I interested? I didn’t even blink—YES! This fearlessly courageous novel that dared to confront the unsavory truth about a long-hidden episode in Czech history, and dealt with globally relevant themes such as the devastating effects of collective guilt and the transformative power of forgiveness, had to be available in English.
My goal was to create an English translation that would carry anglophone readers along with the same intensity and appeal as the Czech original. I was hugely inspired by Ann Goldstein’s translations of Elena Ferrante’s novels and was after the same seamless, natural English flow.
In spring 2018, I was invited to Brno by the Meeting Brno festival, co-founded by Kateřina Tučková, to give a talk about my father. Tučková and I finally met in person, and I joined Tučková and her colleagues, along with some 250 other participants, for the Pilgrimage of Reconciliation, which retraces the 32-kilometer route walked by the expelled Germans in 1945, but symbolically in reverse, from Pohořelice back to Brno. I had the opportunity to join the festival’s guided, themed city walks, accompanied by historical commentary, and Tučková personally gave me a tour of Gerta’s
neighborhood, known today as the “Brno-Bronx.” I stayed an extra week and had the opportunity to visit the villages of Perná, Klentnice, and Dunajovice, as well as the beautiful town of Mikulov, where a friend pointed out the house in which one of the women whose wartime experiences had inspired the story of Gerta still lived – she had become a recluse. It was important to me to familiarize myself with the setting so that my descriptions would capture the atmosphere as authentically as possible.
Work on the translation began in earnest in summer 2019. The more I immersed myself into the text, the more the story and its characters drew me in. With each re-reading, my faith in this novel grew. I am thrilled to see it become available in English, honored to have had a hand in the process, and eager for English readers to be introduced to
Born in Switzerland to Czech parents, the late pianist Rudolf Firkusny and his wife, Tatiana, Véronique Firkusny grew up in a trilingual, musical household that sparked a lifelong passion for language, literature, and music. She translates primarily from Czech to English, and her most recently published English translation is Daniela Hodrová’s novel A Kingdom of Souls, co-translated with Elena Sokol. Forthcoming publications include, in collaboration with Elena Sokol, Daniela Hodrová’s Puppets. Firkusny serves as the executive director of the Avery Fisher Artist Program of Lincoln Center and also coaches opera singers in Czech diction. A graduate of Barnard College, where she received a BA in Italian literature, she resides in New York City.