Peirene No. 12

Chasing the King of Hearts

Hanna Krall


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  • Description

    The internationally acclaimed Polish bestseller about the Holocaust. A remarkable true story of love and survival. Now for the first time in English.

    The Warsaw Ghetto, 1942. When Izolda’s husband, Shayek, is imprisoned, she sets out to release him. She changes her name, her hair, her religion. Eventually she is captured and deported to Auschwitz. But even there, she trusts that her love will save them both.







    Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
    This is a beautiful love story but also an incredible account of one woman’s quest to be heard. Told with astounding simplicity, the book recreates the Holocaust not as an historical event but as a terrifying shared experience. I am amazed – and honoured – that it was left to Peirene to publish this book for the first time in English.

    Written by Hanna Krall.
    Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm.

    Turning Point series
    176pp, paperback with flaps, £12.00
    ISBN 978-1-908670-10-6
    eISBN: 978-1-908670-13-7

  • Author

    Hanna Krall was born in 1935 in Poland and survived the Second World War hiding on the Aryan side (outside the ghetto) in Warsaw. Her family perished in the war. She began her writing career as a prize-winning journalist. Since the early ’80s she has worked as a novelist. She has received numerous Polish and international awards, such as the underground Solidarity Prize, Polish PEN Club Prize, the German Würth Preis for European Literature 2012 and the Austrian Herder Prize. Translated into 17 languages, her work has gained widespread international recognition. In 2007 Król kier znów na wylocie (Chasing the King of Hearts) was shortlisted for the Angelus Central European Literary Award.

  • Translator

    Philip Boehm is the author of more than two dozen translations of novels and plays by German and Polish writers, including Nobelist Herta Müller, Christoph Hein, Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Chwin. Nonfiction translations include A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous and Words to Outlive Us, a collection of eyewitness accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto. For his work as a translator he has received numerous awards, most recently the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize (UK), the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize (US), and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He also works as a playwright and theatre director, and is the Founding Artistic Director of Upstream Theatre in St. Louis.

  • Press

    ‘Chasing the King of Hearts is not only a love story and a Holocaust novel. Its deep and intimate inquiry is the mystery of personality – in other words, spiritual survival in a fateless universe… You now have in your hands a masterpiece.’ Kapka Kassabova

    ‘A spare, startling tale of love and survival.’ Justine Jordan, The Guardian

    ‘This strange unsettling novel … is a remarkable find…. The reader is held at a distance by a tone that is so studiedly neutral as to be almost jaunty, yet because it is relating the most appalling atrocities it becomes the more affecting.’ David Mills, Sunday Times

    ‘An arresting style that rises in remarkable fashion to the challenge such a history poses to any narrator, combining steely lyricism with a thriller’s tension.’ Marek Kohn, Independent

    ‘The narrative is epic in spirit but minimalist in its telling; historical but necessarily elliptical. With the homily of Walker Evans in mind – ‘Die knowing something. You are not here long’ – just read it.’ Seán Sheehan, Irish Left Review

  • Reading Sample


    She buys shoelaces for a pair of men’s shoes – such a
    trivial purchase.
    As she’s buying them, she still thinks she’s in love with
    Jurek Szwarcwald. Everybody thinks that, especially
    Jurek’s parents. Jurek isn’t ugly and he isn’t boring. He
    isn’t poor, either. Izolda is wearing his shoes because a
    bomb destroyed the house on Ogrodowa Street and now
    she can’t get into her apartment, let alone her wardrobe.
    She stops at her friend Basia Maliniak’s. Just for a
    moment, to thread the new laces.
    A young man is standing by the stove, warming his
    hands on the tiles. He’s tall and slender, with straight,
    golden hair. His hands have a golden tinge. When he
    sits down he spreads his legs and drops his arms – nonchalantly, almost absent-mindedly. His hands just hang there, helpless, and even more beautiful. She learns he has two first names, Yeshayahu Wolf, and that Basia calls him Shayek.
    She takes her time lacing her shoes. After an hour
    Shayek says: You have the eyes of a rabbi’s daughter. An
    hour later he adds: A sceptical rabbi.
    Basia sees her to the door and hisses: I could kill you
    right now.


    He drops by a few days later, with bad news about Hala
    Borensztajn’s brother Adek. (Izolda shared a desk with
    Hala to the end of sixth form.) Adek’s dead. From typhus.
    She can’t believe it: typhus? People die of scarlet fever
    or pneumonia but not from typhus. Shayek says: Now
    they’ll be dying differently, we better get used to that.
    They walk over to Hala’s. Adek’s friends have come
    as well. The apartment is cold. They drink tea. Basia
    Maliniak is knitting a colourful sweater from unravelled
    yarn and doesn’t say a word to either of them. The others
    talk about typhus. Supposedly it comes from lice. Not
    from people? No, just lice. Hala laughs at her father, who
    wants to build a shelter and hide from the lice and from
    the war. His daughter assures him that the war won’t
    last long, but he’s already stocking up on provisions.
    The talk moves to love. Izolda says: You know what?
    I thought I was in love with Jurek Szwarcwald but I was
    wrong. Should I tell him or not? After some debate her
    friends conclude that would be too cruel. Get engaged
    to someone else, they advise, and Shayek tosses out: I’m
    available. After he leaves, Basia Maliniak puts down her
    knitting and says: He meant that – and she’s right.

    The Zacheta Guest House

    They take a local train. She opens the window and warm,
    spring-like air flows inside. The train passes Józefów.
    She points out the road the old peasant wagon used to
    take coming from town. You can see how it follows the
    tracks. Always around this time of year. That’s where
    it turned behind the trees. You can’t see the houses
    from the train. The one with the big porch belongs to
    the Szwarcwalds. The wagon would drive up and the
    servant girl would unload all the baskets packed with
    linens, summer clothes, pots, buckets, brushes. Then
    she’d fetch water from the well and scrub the floors. At
    the end of summer the same wagon would drive back
    in from town and the servant girl would load up all the
    baskets packed with linens, pots, brushes. There used to
    be a sandy glade in the woods, not far off, with an old
    oak tree. No, of course you can’t see the tree. It always
    had so many acorns.
    She talks and talks, hoping the words will drown out
    her fear, as well as her embarrassment and curiosity. They
    get off at Otwock, the end of the line. A group of older
    boys scrambles out of the next carriage, all very serious
    and conspiratorial, probably scouts. Their leader issues
    a few quiet commands – fall in, compasses, north-east
    – and the column fades into the woods. A freckle-faced
    boy with a broad smile brings up the rear.
    The Zacheta guest house smells of warm pine. Inside
    the room, Shayek clearly knows what to do with a woman
    who’s as eager as she is afraid, as curious as she is embarrassed.
    Later that afternoon they head back, stopping
    to rest under a tree. She lays her head on his lap. They
    hear a chorus of voices, not very loud, singing a scouting
    song: Hur-rah hur-rah, hoo-ray hoo-ray! As long as we
    can, let’s seize the day! – the boys from the next carriage
    are also returning to the station. The freckle-faced boy
    again brings up the rear, but he isn’t singing; maybe he
    doesn’t have the voice for it. The boy notices them. Hey,
    he shouts, take a look at this, the Yids are making love.
    The boy snickers, then turns around and catches up with
    his colleagues. Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers:
    Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they
    could tell. He drapes her sweater around her shoulders.
    She hadn’t realized it had slipped, exposing the armband
    with the blue star.

  • For Reading Groups

    A few thought-provoking questions to get your mind moving:
    1. The protagonist of Chasing the King of Hearts, Izolda Regensberg, was a real person who told her story to Hanna Krall so that she would turn it into a book. How is the reading experience affected by the fact that the story is based on actual events?

    2. Discuss the role of humour in the book.

    3. What symbolic role does the pack of cards play?

    4. Did you find the book uplifting or depressing?

    5. What is your reaction towards the character of Shayek? Did your opinion of him change throughout the story? Do you think the author was seeking to elicit that reaction?

    6. What is the role of the uncaptioned photographs included in the book? How do they complement the text?

    7. How is Chasing the King of Hearts different from other ‘Holocaust novels’ you have read? Under what other genres or sub-genres could it be classified?

    8. Discuss how the theme of identity is explored in the book.

    9. At one point in the book, the narrator says that ‘everything in life is interwoven in enigmatic ways.’ Discuss the role that chance and personal choice play in Izolda’s story.

    10. Theodor Adorno famously said that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ Does Hanna Krall’s unadorned, laconic style suit the events narrated in her book?