A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova (Modlitba Pro Katerinu Horovitzovou)
A PRAYER FOR KATERINA HOROVITZOVA (Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou)
Novel by Arnošt Lustig, 1964
Arnošt Lustig reveals a penchant for creating exceptionally strong female characters, and Katerina Horovitzova in A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova (1973; Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou, 1964) is no exception. In an interview with Contemporary Authors, he stated, "I like stories about brave people, about how they survived under the worst circumstances. I like people who are fighting for their fate, and who are better in the end, richer, in a sense, than they were in the beginning. I think that each writer has a certain duty—to imagine himself in theory as perhaps the last human being alive under certain circumstances and that perhaps his testimony will be the last one. He is obliged to deliver that testimony." A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova certainly represents this statement.
Bribery, trickery, and deceit mark the road to nowhere in this novel. Twenty European-born Jews, all of whom are American citizens, have been captured in Italy and turned over to German authorities. These men have two things in common—their wallets and their egos. They are all immensely wealthy, and it is their affluence and egoism that will be used against them in their attempt to buy their way out of German hands. Mr. Herman Cohen, with permission of Mr. Friedrich Brenske, commandant of the camp's secret division, has managed to rescue young Katerina Horovitzova from the loading dock. She will join the group in its attempts to free itself from the clutches of the Nazis. She will also be used by the Nazis as a pawn in an intense game of falsehoods and sadistic acts. Mr. Brenske sees the potential in her very presence for more manipulation of the group's monetary status and brilliantly employs her beauty and youth to bleed the men of their last francs. From the very beginning of their plight, it is evident that Mr. Brenske's promises to the prisoners will never be fulfilled. His entire plan is to lead them full-circle, from their internment at the camp, to the train, to the ship that will supposedly carry them all to freedom, back on board the train, ending with a return to the camp. On each foot of the voyage Mr. Brenske creates a new excuse to have the men write checks, until their money supply is depleted. This is all in an effort to gain more money for the German Reichsbank, and there is no intention whatsoever of releasing these captives. Lustig's ingenious plot, however, keeps the reader's hopes high that this story might turn out differently, although it becomes clearer with the multiple requests for Swiss francs that these 21 people are doomed. The ultimate act of sadism is placing the prisoners within view of the rescue ship that will never sail.
Throughout the entire ordeal Katerina keeps silent and seems detached from the group. Although many of the men protest Mr. Brenske's appeals for more cash, she observes and quietly obeys. The buildup of tension within her is evident throughout the novel and climaxes when the men run out of money. It is not evident that Katerina could become the hero of the work; after all, she is the only female in this group. She is forced to strip in front of all the men in an attempt to further humiliate her, but she performs the ultimate act of revenge by snatching a pistol from Lieutenant Schillinger and shooting several Nazis. Her act of revenge is indeed a dignified one, something that her 20 captives are powerless to commit. She retains her femininity to the end, and her execution of these Nazis does nothing but show the real power in her personality. She is able to act, whereas her 20 cohorts could do no more than write checks. Human dignity indeed reaches much deeper than one's pockets. All the prisoners are singularly executed, starting with Mr. Adler, "as though things must always be done alphabetically," an act that further reveals the obsessive compulsion of the Nazi regime.
Katerina's body is burned along with the others, as Rabbi Dajem sings a song in the hair-drying room commemorating her bravery.
—Cynthia A. Klíma