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27) Gerta: Kateřina Tučková’s powerful novel shines light on Brno expulsions

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Kateřina Tučková’s Gerta, which came out this year in English on the Amazon Crossing imprint, centres on Gerta Schnirch, a young member of Brno’s German community who experiences extreme hardships in the immediate aftermath of the war.

The powerful novel opens with the main character on a real-life death march in which tens of thousands of ethnic Germans, including many women and children, were driven from the Moravian capital toward the Austrian border at the end of May 1945.

“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.”

(Gerta, pg. 1, translated by Veronique 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 brought fresh attention to a dark episode in modern Czech history.

When I spoke about the book with Tučková she said there had been no real Gerta Schnirch – but there could easily have been. The writer carries out a lot of research for her historical projects, and this novel was no exception.

“I was very glad that I had a chance to find two women who were very open to me and wanted to talk with me.

“They were of German roots but they weren’t expelled. They had a chance to return to Brno, and they stayed there.

“But for their whole lives they didn’t admit to anyone that they were originally Germans.

“It was very hard to start the discussion about their memories and their roots and their families, so I was very glad that they were willing 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 were involved in the march.

“From them I could understand the emotions and everything that happened in the lives of people who were expelled.”

Kateřina Tučková | Photo: Vojtěch Vlk

The novel was translated into English by New York-based Veronique Firkusny, whose famous pianist father Rudolf Firkušný and maternal grandparents lived in pre-war Brno.

The descriptions of the Brno death march in Kateřina Tučková’s book are often shocking and Firkusny says she had not previously known of the event, which occurred during what are known as the “wild expulsions” in the initial months after the war.

“It was revelatory to me. I had never heard anything about it. I was completely unaware of what had happened.”

How did you find the way that the author, Kateřina Tučková, describes those atrocities and those events?

“What I so appreciated: Her writing is very direct, and she never allows herself to exaggerate for the sake of dramatic effect.

“Everything is presented in a very realistic, direct way that I actually find is extremely powerful, because it does not sensationalise.

“Especially with the death march, I really felt as though I was walking with those people.”

Also as far as I know she was so careful with the historical facts, because she knew that if got anything wrong the kind of people who wouldn’t like her writing such a book would jump on it.

“Yes, one of the things that I also so appreciate about Katka’s approach is that there is an incredible care and mindfulness to not offend people as much as possible.

Véronique Firkusny | Photo: Steve J. Sherman

“I feel the big motivation behind her wanting to probe and unearth these stories is really with the intention of facing parts of history that have been occluded, but with the intention of allowing a society and a generation to heal.

“It’s really so powerful, her intention that is not to point fingers, not to indict, but to allow for a discussion that will lead to understanding and ultimately, I think, the ability to forgive.

“I think that that’s one of the most powerful messages in Gerta.

“It really points out the difference between what is an apology and what is forgiveness.

“The ability to forgive, which can only come through understanding, is such a liberation, really for the person who does the forgiving.

“It’s less about offering a pardon or offering an apology; it’s this transformative process that allows these very complex and very troubled situations, that have a life far beyond the initial events that set them in motion, to somehow be digested and processed, and to be liberated from the burden of carrying this awareness within you, in some way.”

On the language side, were there any challenges to you as the translator? Were there any particularly hard aspects to translating this book?

“Well, I learned a lot.

“For example, there is a chapter that deals in great detail with a dairy farm operation, and that was interesting, just from a purely vocabulary perspective.

“In terms of challenges, I do speak German, and I understand German, so the interjection of German words seemed very clear to me. They didn’t jar me at all.

Brno ‘death march’ | Photo: Post Bellum

“It turned out as we were working in the editing process for American readers specifically we had a lot of back-and-forth about how many German words we should leave in.

“Certain words, like, for example, lebensraum, wunderwaffen or weltanschauung – these words which I didn’t expect would need further clarification, and certainly for Czech readers they wouldn’t have – the feeling was that they needed a little bit of clarification.

“In terms of how Kateřina writes, I’m tempted to use a musical term – it’s a very richly orchestrated text.

“But it does not seek to be exaggerated or hyperbolic in any way, so the vocabulary is very direct and it’s a style that really is interested in being able to tell a story – it’s not trying to be complicated for the reader, it’s not trying to play with the language as such.

“The language really is the vehicle for the narrative.”

Did you find that you occasionally had to add a little bit of information, just so the English-speaking reader could understand the context?

“Yes, absolutely.

“Right at the very beginning there’s a perfect example of that. There’s a reference in the Czech, where a young man, a neighbour of Gerta who ‘se zastřelil jejich Jirka, prý protože nás zradili’.

“And I had to really think about that. It was not an obvious thing for me, and of course the reference is to the perceived betrayal in Munich.

“That is a very clear perception for Czechs, but it was not clear to me.

“Even though that is a part of history I was aware of, it took me a long time to work out what the reference was.

Photo: Host

“So that was one case where I just spelled it out.”

The Czech title translates as 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 is so, so specific.

“As we were working through the editing process with the incredible team at Amazon Crossing we sort of very naturally kept referring to it as ‘Gerta’.

“I think that the decision ultimately was that for the purpose of the story, it’s really the character, it’s really about her.

“And we felt that that actually would give it strength and make it perhaps more accessible, rather than having this very wordy, very specific title that wouldn’t really mean anything to somebody looking at it on a bookshelf.”

And of course the book is about more than just her expulsion.

“Well, exactly.

“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 just engaging potential readers.

“The Czech title has a magic that unfortunately is lost in translation, because the mere title itself – Vyhnání Gerty Schnirch… in those three words you immediately have the whole issue of her dual identity.

“You know, she is not Schnirchová, she is Gerta Schnirch. And yet it’s ‘vyhnání’, so it’s Czech right off the bat.

“Any Czech person exposed to that title I think would immediately, just intuitively, get a sense of the conflict here.

“Unfortunately there was no way to translate that into English.

“We were all, including Kateřina, very happy though with just calling it Gerta.”