We Are Only Ghosts

Image of We Are Only Ghosts: A Remarkable Novel of Survival in the Wake of WWII
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
A John Scognamiglio Book
Reviewed by: 

easily merits five stars because of its ability to keep the reader interested until the end through its unusual and beautifully told story.”

We Are Only Ghosts is timely given the increasingly high levels of antisemitism since the Hamas terrorist attacks last year which saw the biggest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. The novel provides a clear insight into what it was like for the Jews in Auschwitz and, in the case of the main character (Karel), who was both Jewish and gay. Additionally, it captures the existences of those held prisoner by the sadistic Nazis who relished in causing suffering, torture and death.

Seventeen-year-old Karel was Czech Jewish and singled out by Nazi officer Obersturmführer Berthold Werden. He was separated from his family after they were deported to Auschwitz and Werden took him to his home to work as a servant. He and his horrible, ugly wife (Frau Werden) showed routine disdain toward Karel. They savored having power, authority, and control over him. Werden delighted in his suffering when his mother and sisters were gassed to death as punishment for disobeying his orders. Afterward, he didn’t show any remorse despite Karel being inconsolable with grief and despair. But this warped and wretched man hid many secrets—not least his pleasure in having sex with Karel after his wife and children had gone to sleep. Every night he went to the basement where Karel slept and spent hours satisfying his lust, only returning to his own bed at dawn before his wife woke up.

From the outset, it was apparent that Karel was tall and handsome with a loving, soft, and tender side to his character, which Werden quickly noticed. Over time, Karel developed confused feelings towards this brutish man, ranging from affection to hatred and dependency. One scene would see him being caressed and held in Werden’s arms, and the next would see him beaten, humiliated, and taunted by Frau Werden. She was always hypercritical of everything Karel did and may have suspected her husband had turned to this young Jewish boy, whom she despised, for sexual pleasures she could not provide.

The storyline shows how time caught up with the Nazis after the war stopped going in their favor, and they had to leave Poland as quickly as possible. Weden helped Karel construct a new identity and papers (Charles Ward) before leaving with his family and abandoning Karel. For a while, this was difficult. There were many trials and tribulations alongside the ever-constant fear of his religion being discovered. But then, thankfully, a window of opportunity to escape Poland arose, setting Karel on a path that would hopefully help him escape his past as he emigrated to America.

Karel arrived in New York and could only be described as a cadaverous shell of a young man after years of living in trauma. He quickly settled, though, and found work in the catering industry. After a few jobs, he was happy to get a position in the upmarket Café Marie, with its sophisticated ambience and high-class clientele. New York life appeared to tick along nicely for Karel as the story reached 1968—some 27 years after his arrival—and he was the head waiter of this posh café.

A distinguished man in his sixties began to frequent the café daily. He always arrived at the same time and ordered coffee and the same pastry before leaving exactly 30 minutes later. Karel noticed him because of these little peculiarities, but the man never looked at him or offered the slightest acknowledgement when he served at his table. Then, one day, the man’s wife joined him, and upon hearing her loud voice, Karel knew it was Frau Werden.

The story reveals that Werden—now known as Wallace Lynch—and his family had also created new identities before settling in America. Sometime later, Werden recognized Karel and invited him to dinner. Drawn back into Werden’s orbit, he was forced to revisit his past pain. Karel tried to decipher his feelings, knowing that Werden was evil to him and the Jewish people, but also recalled how he could be loving and kind to him, too, but in a depraved way. His thoughts constantly conflicted with each other and offered no clarity to help him survive the complex situation that risked drowning him emotionally. 

It became clear that Werden wanted to use Karel all over again, and after minimizing and justifying the past, he wanted them to resume meeting up for sex. But it also became evident that Karel was thinking about revenge. He mulled over whether he should notify the authorities and report Werden as a war criminal. Perhaps this was the game-changer he needed to finally free himself of his past horrors. But would this mean losing his only tether to the past and the only other witness to who he was and everything he endured? Or would it be worth it, knowing it would finally bring peace?

This well-written novel by Jeffrey L. Richards will capture readers’ attention from the first page with its stylish prose. This profound piece of writing reminds the world again of the horrors of Hitler and the Third Reich and the suffering of Jews. Readers will get a sprinkling of Holocaust education from this novel and explore the horrors of Auschwitz: the beatings, starvation, gas chambers, and the psychopathic and sadistic Nazis.

However, Richards didn’t capitalize on the Holocaust as a central theme of his book. Instead, the story is told in two timelines, the (linear) present and the (nonlinear) past and never veers too far from the plight and suffering of Karel, who always comes across as a likeable and believable character. In life, it can be said that love will not be denied, no matter how harrowing the circumstances, but in this case, the reader will quickly garner that true love between Karel and Werder could never exist. We Are Only Ghosts easily merits five stars because of its ability to keep the reader interested until the end through its unusual and beautifully told story.