Gerta: Kateřina Tučková’s powerful novel sheds light on Brno evictions
The powerful novel opens with the main character of a veritable death march in which tens of thousands of ethnic Germans, including many women and children, were driven from the Moravian capital to the Austrian border at the end of May 1945.
“She can’t say for sure how long they’ve been walking. It seems their journey took centuries. And yet the dawn hasn’t even risen, so it can’t be more than a few hours. She is tired, and so is her companion. Should she try to stop and rest?
On a few occasions, they passed people sitting either on the ground or on the suitcases they were dragging. On several occasions, they also saw one of the armed youths rushing forward and hitting the heads of these people with the butt of a rifle. She was afraid to stop. Despite the side stitch and the pain in her left foot, she forced herself to keep taking steps.
(Gerta, p. 1, translated by Véronique Firkusny, published by Amazon Crossing)
Kateřina Tučková’s novel originally came out in Czech in 2009 under the title Vyhnání Gerty Schnirch (The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch) and drew attention to a dark episode in modern Czech history.
When I spoke about the book with Tučková, she said that there had been no real Gerta Schnirch – but that it could easily have been. The writer does a lot of research for his historical projects, and this novel is no exception.
“I was very happy to have had the chance to find two women who were very open with me and who wanted to talk with me.
“They were of German origin but they were not expelled. They were lucky enough to return to Brno and they stayed there.
“But in their entire lives, they didn’t tell anyone that they were originally Germans.
“It was very difficult to start the discussion about their memories, their roots and their families, so I was very happy that they were ready to speak with me.
“These two women were the most important source for me because I understood how cruel it was for the women and children who took part in the march.
“From them I could understand the emotions and everything that was going on in the lives of the deportees. “
The novel was translated into English by New York-based Veronique Firkusny, whose famous pianist father Rudolf Firkušný and maternal grandparents lived in Brno before the war.
The descriptions of Brno’s death march in Kateřina Tučková’s book are often shocking and Firkusny says she was not previously aware of the event, which happened during what is known as the “savage expulsions” in the first months after the war.
“It was telling to me. I had never heard of it. I was completely oblivious to what had happened.
How did you find the way the author, Kateřina Tučková, describes these atrocities and events?
“What I liked so much: her writing is very direct, and she never allows herself to exaggerate in the name of dramatic effect.
“Everything is presented in a very realistic and straightforward way that I actually find extremely powerful, because it doesn’t cause a stir.
“Especially with the Death March, I really felt like I was walking with these people.”
As far as I know, she was so careful with historical facts, because she knew that if something was wrong, the kind of people who wouldn’t like her writing such a book would jump on it.
“Yes, one of the things I also really appreciate about Katka’s approach is that there is incredible care and attention to not offending people as much as possible.
“I think the big motivation behind his desire to probe and unearth these stories is really with the intention of dealing with parts of the story that have been occluded, but with the intention of enabling a society and a generation to heal.
“It’s really so powerful, his intention not to point fingers, not to accuse, but to allow a discussion that will lead to understanding and ultimately, I think, the ability to forgive.
“I think this is one of Gerta’s most powerful messages.
“It really shows the difference between what is an apology and what is forgiveness.
“The ability to forgive, which can only come from understanding, is such a release, really for the forgiving person.
“It’s less about offering forgiveness or apologizing; it is this process of transformation that allows these very complex and very troubled situations, which have a life far beyond the initial events that triggered them, to be somehow digested and processed, and to be freed from the burden of carrying that awareness within you, as it were. “
On the language side, have you encountered any challenges as a translator? Were there any aspects that were particularly difficult to translate this book?
“Well, I learned a lot.
“For example, there is a chapter that deals in detail with a dairy farm, and it was interesting, just from a purely vocabulary point of view.
“In terms of challenges, I speak German and I understand German, so the interjection of German words seemed very clear to me. They didn’t shock me at all.
“It turned out that, while we were working on the editing process for American readers, we had a lot of back and forth over how many German words we should leave.
“Certain words, like, for example, lebensraum, wunderwaffen or weltanschauung – those words which I did not expect would need further clarification, and certainly for Czech readers they would not – the feeling was that ‘ they needed a little clarification.
“As for the way Kateřina writes, I’m tempted to use a musical term – it’s a very richly orchestrated text.
“But it doesn’t try to be overdone or hyperbolic in any way, so the vocabulary is very straightforward and it’s a style that really cares about being able to tell a story – it doesn’t try to be complicated for the reader, it is not trying to play with the language as such.
“Language is really the vehicle of the story. “
Did you find that you sometimes need to add a little bit of information, just so that the English-speaking reader can understand the context?
“From the very beginning, there was a perfect example of this. There is a reference in Czech, where a young man, a neighbor of Gerta who ‘se zastřelil jejich Jirka, prý protože nás zradili’.
“And I really had to think about it. It was not an obvious thing to me, and of course the reference is to the perceived betrayal in Munich.
“It’s a very clear perception for the Czechs, but it wasn’t clear to me.
“Even though this is a part of the story that I was aware of, it took me a long time to figure out what the benchmark was.
“So that was a case where I just spelled it out.”
The Czech title translates to The Expulsion of Gerta Schnirch. Why is the English title simply Gerta?
“I thought a lot about the title, and I kept coming back to ‘the expulsion of Gerta Schnirch’, because it’s so, so specific.
“As we worked on the editing process with the amazing team at Amazon Crossing, we very naturally continued to call her ‘Gerta’.
“I think the decision was ultimately that for the sake of the story, it’s really the character, it’s really about her.
“And we thought that would give it strength and maybe make it more accessible, rather than having that very wordy and very specific title that wouldn’t mean anything to someone looking at it on a shelf.”
And of course, the book isn’t limited to his expulsion.
“It’s interesting, the German translation chose to translate the title as Gerta, The German Girl, which made sense to me also in terms of engaging potential readers.
“The Czech title has a magic that is unfortunately lost in the translation, because the single title itself – Vyhnání Gerty Schnirch… in these three words you immediately have the whole question of his double identity.
“You know, it’s not Schnirchová, it’s Gerta Schnirch. And yet, it’s ‘vyhnání’, so it’s Czech from the start.
“I think any Czech person exposed in this capacity would immediately, intuitively, have an idea of the conflict here.
“Unfortunately, there was no way to translate this into English.
“We were all, including Kateřina, very happy to call her simply Gerta.”