Jiří Weil - a fierce and mocking portrayal of ordinary lives as they are changed by the presence of the Nazis in occupied Prague

Mendelssohn is on the Roof, by Jiří Weil
Jiří Weil, Mendelssohn is on the Roof, Trans. by Marie Winn, Daunt Books, 2011.
read it at Google Books

SS officer Julius Schlesinger is ordered to remove the statue of the Jewish composer Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music before an official concert. Unsure which among the decorative statues is Mendelssohn, he tells his men to remove the statue with the biggest nose. Unfortunately, this is the statue of Wagner . . .
This darkly comic and deeply moving novel traces the transformation of ordinary lives during the Nazi occupation of Prague. Weil tells the story of the struggle to survive in a labyrinthine regime, where humour, as well as great courage, is required to retain hope and humanity.


Originally published in Czech in 1960, this novel by the author of Life with a Star is a fierce and mocking portrayal of ordinary lives as they are changed by the presence of the Nazis in occupied Prague. When top-level Nazi Reinhard Heydrich attends a performance of Don Giovanni at Prague's concert hall, he is not only disturbed by the vengeance of the Commendatore's statue in Mozart's opera, but by the sight of a statue of the composer Mendelssohn (who was born a Jew, but converted to Christianity) atop the roof of the hall. He orders it removed. But the hapless low-level minions whose task this becomes cannot identify Mendelssohn's likeness amongst the rooftop statuary. In a series of biting ironies, Weil, who died in 1959, takes us on a guided tour of the hearts and minds of both victims and persecutors. Images of statues are abundant throughout the text, from an enormous Moses being hauled into storage to the tragic paralysis of a Jewish doctor to this musing on the part of the infamous Heydrich: ``Knowing the secret of the Final Solution means invisible power. It means standing high above all people and looking down on them in scornful safety, like a statue. It means being made of stone or bronze. . . . '' Perhaps shriller in tone than Primo Levi, this insistent and important novel of the Holocaust is more than a manifesto; it is also literature. - Publishers Weekly


True to the promise made to myself, to write something up after every book I manage to finish, I’ve been on a book fast until I manage to write about the two Czech novels I finished last month: Josef Škvorecký’s “The Tank Battalion” and Jiří Weil’s “Mendelssohn is on the Roof”. Despite being written by fellow countrymen less than ten years apart, it’s hard to imagine two more different novels. I gobbled them up like a hungry stray dog, but was left with an uneasy feeling after both.

Škvorecký’s was found by accident on the bookshelves of a Catholic charity shop, where my son likes to spend his pocket money: where else can you buy eight books for only four euros? As for Jiří Weil’s, I had ordered it on the Internet on purpose, eager to see what else Jiří Weil had to offer after being blown away by “Life with a Star”.
Now, the fact is, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed more than when reading the first few chapters of Škvorecký’s book. It’s been translated in English as “The Republic of Whores” (stupid title if you ask me, meant to sell the book to horny intellectuals). The French translation I had found luckily stuck closer to the original Czech title. The hero is a certain Danny Smiricky, a low-ranking officer in the Czech army in the early 50’s, just a few years after the communist takeover. The book tells matter-of-factly of various episodes of army life in the communist era: military exercises repeated ad nauseum, lessons in propaganda, everyday life in the military prison, how to seduce a higher officer’s wife as he works on military plans, how to survive award ceremonies, and so on. The soldiers are mostly uneducated farmers and workmen from the countryside, forced in spite of themselves to pretend to be the heros of the People’s army. The humor plays between the endless communist propaganda arrayed at every possible occasion, and the soldiers’ complete mockery of it. And yet, although I laughed so hard it got to the point where I would burst out laughing out of habit, even before reaching the funny bits, and my wife was begging me to go read the book somewhere a bit farther away, still... When I finished reading, I felt like it had all been nothing more than a great big farce. If this was the only point of the book, was it really worth reading and writing? Was life even worth living if at the end, it was nothing more than a farce? Strangely, I left the book that had made me laugh so much with a feeling of sad emptiness.
I was ready to tackle something more pregnant with meaning. I opened “Mendelssohn is on the Roof”. The book starts with a great opening scene: SS candidate Julius Schlesinger is on the roof of the Czech opera house. He has been ordered to remove the statue of the Jewish composer Mendelssohn. Only problem is, the statues don’t have any identifying names. Since he has no idea which is which, he decides to remove the statue with the biggest nose. But just as the workmen are about to pull it down, he shrieks for them to stop: he has recognised the statue from his own school books—it is Wagner.
In each chapter that follows, the author jumps into the life of another character in wartime Prague: one of the Czech workmen who helped pull the statue down; a dying Jewish doctor; an active member of the Czech resistance; a Jewish talmud scholar, Dr. Rabinovich, who’s put in charge of the Jewish museum in the ghetto; a muscular Jewish man, Richard Reisinger, who’s been sent to work for the Gestapo in the warehouse where they sell furniture stolen from the households of those they assassinate; Reinhard Heydrich himself, the Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the masterminds behind the final solution; the two nieces of the dying Jewish doctor who are hiding behind a cupboard in an appartment.
And although there is some happenstance always that ties these stories together, it is not enough to give the novel the feeling of an organic whole. One thing that disappointed me was the attempt to make too much symbolic use of statues—as something that would tie the novel together, perhaps. Many of the episodes touch on one type of statue or another. But the symbolism is too strongly desired by the author and feels artificial. I was also a bit put off by Weil’s uncritical praise of the Red Army coming to save Europe from the clutches of the Nazis. Weil himself was a Communist from the 20’s onwards, but fell into disfavor after criticising the Stalinist purges. I would have hoped to see a less childish attitude towards Stalinism in this book, written in 1960, fairly late in Weil’s career. Yet, despite these disappointments, the book could be very powerful at times. We are made to live the lives of each of the characters, and are even forced into Heydrich’s body to see how easy it is to let oneself adhere fully to the Nazi racial theories. We enter the pitiful lives of Jews who believe they will somehow be saved because they are catering to the needs of the Nazis – those who help the Nazis sell or assess stolen goods, and those, like Dr. Rabnivoich, who simply uses his knowledge to help the Nazis create a museum of Jewish religious lore. And we see that all of them have been fooling themselves. The book shows us how easy it is to become a cog in the totalitarian engine, and how difficult it is to resist. It ends tragically for the vast majority of characters. One of the only exceptions is Richard Reisinger, who slowly comes to understand that the only honorable stance is one of resistance, even if it means losing one’s life. This character reminds us of Joseph Rubicek, the semi-autobiographic hero of Weil’s great novel, “Life with a Star”.
But, whereas “Life with a Star” held together tightly as a novel, and allowed us to follow Rubicek’s slow discovery, through imaginary conversations with his lost lover and his stray cat, of what attitude one could possibly hold against the Nazi murder machine, “Mendelssohn is on the Roof” jumps from one scene to another, and at the end, doesn’t seem to give us any insight beyond that of the earlier novel. It is often a powerful book, often a scary one as well, but when all is said and done, it is a failure. Read it if you want to discover more of Weil’s work; but start with “Life with a Star”. - Moyshele Rosencrantz

The enigmatic title of Jiri Weil's newly published novel refers to an incident in the first chapter. Prague is under Nazi occupation, and orders have come down from the German high command to remove a statue of Mendelssohn, who was born a Jew, from the roof of Prague's concert hall.
Text:
Julius Schlesinger, the SS officer in charge of carrying out this order, doesn't know what the composer looked like, and he discovers that the numerous statues on the building's roof do not have identifying plaques. Recalling a Nazi course he took in racial science, he orders his workmen to remove the statue with the biggest nose. Only as the statue is on the verge of toppling over does he recognize the chosen figure as the one composer he knows: Richard Wagner, one of the idols of the Reich. It is a mistake whose consequences will ripple throughout the lives of Schlesinger, his workmen, their Nazi bosses, and half a dozen unfortunate residents of Prague. Like its predecessor -- the powerful "Life With a Star," published in English two years ago -- this volume conveys the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Prague by focusing on its effect on the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Indeed, the book's most powerful passages deal with the banality of evil, the way it can skew the most mundane events of life. Weil shows how the word "transports" -- "an ordinary word, one usually associated with furniture moving" -- suddenly takes on a horrific new meaning; how a simple knock on the door comes to signify one's worst nightmares. He also demonstrates the persistence of familiar rituals and feelings in the face of unimaginable horror. We see workers, ordered to build a new railway line for the Nazi transports, lose themselves in the satisfaction of good, hard manual work; and we see a group of people on their way to the death camps bicker among themselves about the social standing of a newly arrived prisoner. Instead of concentrating on the experiences of a single character, as "Life With a Star" did, "Mendelssohn Is on the Roof" cuts back and forth between a dozen characters, giving the reader a kaleidoscopic portrait of life in Prague. It's a narrative strategy reminiscent of the one employed by Andrzej Szczypiorski to depict Nazi-occupied Warsaw in "The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman." Among the characters portrayed by Weil are Schlesinger, the SS officer who fails to identify the statue of Mendelssohn; Becvar, one of the workmen involved in the Mendelssohn episode, who is sent to the front for his part in the foul-up; Dr. Rabinovich, a learned Jew, who is consulted in vain about identifying the statue, and the Nazi officials who initially order the statue's removal. As the novel progresses, the Mendelssohn statue takes on a metaphoric quality, and images of other statues begin to proliferate as well. A statue of Moses turns up in the Jewish ghetto, reminding the Chief Elder of the Second Commandment ("Thou shalt not make graven images"). A Nazi official embraces a statue of St. George subduing the dragon as a symbol of the Reich's destiny. A patient studied by the Nazi doctors realizes that a rare disease is slowly turning him into a living statue. No doubt such images of paralysis and petrification are meant to represent the Nazis' effect on the city of Prague, but the symbolism seems arbitrary and contrived, in sharp contrast to the effortless understatement that distinguished "Life With a Star." There is another problem as well: whereas Weil's earlier novel employed an abstract, Kafkaesque vocabulary (the Nazis are never even mentioned by name) to lend the events it described the power of fable, "Mendelssohn Is on the Roof" clumsily mixes up the real and the imagined. Allusions are made to actual leaders of the Reich and Weil occasionally attempts to write from the point of view of individual Nazis, all of whom are cartoon villains who make repeated references to "subhumans" and "the technology of murder." The result of this narrative strategy is a picture of Prague that is, at once, less universal and somehow less shockingly real than the one depicted in "Life With a Star." Yet if this volume (originally published in Czech in 1960, a year after the author's death) does not quite measure up to Weil's earlier masterpiece -- few books, after all, do -- it nonetheless remains a valuable and often illuminating work. The author's description of a hanging staged in the Jewish ghetto is one of the most powerful and disturbing scenes to emerge recently from Holocaust literature, and his portraits of ordinary citizens, shocked out of their daily routines by the appearance of an incomprehensible and radical evil, force the reader into a visceral recognition of the horrors of this period in history. - MICHIKO KAKUTANI 

In "Mendelssohn Is on the Roof" by Jiri Weil, Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, welcomes a distinguished guest, a minister from Berlin. Weil does not give a name to the Nazi minister, but it is presumably Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi philosopher who was once an architect, for he takes special satisfaction in an architectural tour of Prague, and engages his host in cultural conversation.
"It most certainly is a German city," the minister comments, though he wonders whether Czechoslovak artisans may not have introduced a "foreign element" into the architecture. "But Prague is Baroque," Heydrich objects "a bit peevishly" -- and takes the minister to a new vantage point, the very spot from which Hitler himself admired the city.
The dark design of this brilliant novel -- first published in Prague in 1960 and now translated into English for the first time -- forces the reader to take the same view, to see the city through the vulturous gaze of its German masters as they babble about the Baroque in esthetic appreciation of their prey. The beauties and marvelous monuments of Prague were not reduced to rubble in aerial bombardment, but Weil, who himself survived the war against all odds, saw a city undermined, exploded and defiled by evil eyes.
The Nazi minister, unflagging in his cultural interests, visits a new museum where confiscated Jewish religious artifacts go on display even as the Jews themselves are deported and disappear. At the museum, a designer who used to make sets for left-wing theater productions now arranges life-size dummies -- Jews of papier-mache -- in a scene of a Passover seder. The designer will reappear later in the book, at the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, designing coffins and gallows. The minister's busy day ends at the opera house, where he rejoins Heydrich for a performance of "Don Giovanni" in the theater where Mozart's masterpiece had its Prague premiere.
Heydrich is especially interested in music, and it is he who orders the removal of a particular public statue of Mendelssohn from the roof of the concert hall -- which gives the book its title. That removal becomes comedy when SS troops try to ascertain which statue in a series of unlabeled composers is actually Mendelssohn the Jew. Wagner is almost deposed by mistake as the statue with the biggest nose. Yet statues possess a magical power in Weil's fictional world, and that of Mendelssohn takes revenge on those who dared lay hands upon it, just as the statue of the Commendatore brings retribution in the last act of "Don Giovanni." The assassination of Heydrich himself by members of the Czechoslovak resistance occurs in the middle of the book, thus establishing a precise historical event of May 1942 at the heart of this historical novel.
In "Life With a Star" (published in Prague in 1949, in New York in 1989) Weil wrote from the absolute immediacy of wartime experience about one man -- "with a star" -- in an occupied city where people with stars are all eventually summoned for deportation. In "Mendelssohn Is on the Roof" (published a year after Weil's death in 1959) that same experience is represented completely differently, for in the 1950's, with every passing year, the Nazi Protectorate became more and more a matter of history. In "Life With a Star" the enemy is an anonymous "they," while in "Mendelssohn" the Nazis are designated as such and identified individually by name. In "Life With a Star" not even the city is named, though it could have been mapped on Kafka's brain, with streetcars racing from one nightmare to the next. In "Mendelssohn" the urban landscape of Prague is catalogued with architectural specificity.
To represent Nazi Europe in historical fiction is a challenge that has yielded dramatically diverse conceptions in works exactly contemporary with "Mendelssohn Is on the Roof" -- from the lyrical French fable of Jewish history in "The Last of the Just" by Andre Schwarz-Bart (1959), to the staging of psychosexual games conditioned by the Nazi occupation of Poland in "Pornografia" by Witold Gombrowicz (1960). Weil renders the historical moment as a wild cacophony of discordant voices, all inhabiting the same city, from Heydrich himself to two Jewish children, Adela and Greta, who are hiding behind a cupboard.
The lone consciousness of Josef Roubicek in "Life With a Star" would be one voice in a million here. Yet the apparent multiplicity of perspectives in "Mendelssohn" is dominated by a powerful authorial presence, as Weil inhabits the characters in turn, pulling their puppet strings and then rushing on to the next figure in the gallery. Characters resemble dummies, like the Jewish designer with his papier-mache Jews, and statues possess more power than people in the unreal domain of the Nazi Protectorate. Inevitably, this is a gallery of grotesques, as some of the characters plot and perpetrate a design of ultimate evil, and others cooperate, capitulate, resist, succumb, disappear.
The frenzy of the book seems to abate as the deportation of the Jews nears completion, when the two little girls behind a cupboard seem to be the last Jews in Prague. The final pages herald one last thunderous burst -- "the Soviet Army rolled out of the East from the plains of Stalingrad" -- before subsiding into the terrible quiet of a fairy-tale ending "in the forest."
At the human center of the book is a Jewish doctor, Rudolf Vorlitzer, expelled from a hospital as he suffers progressive paralysis, "turning him into a living statue." He leaves the care of his nieces, Adela and Greta, to his friend Jan Krulis (his lover, perhaps), an architect deeply devoted to Prague. That devotion is parodied and profaned by Heydrich, by the Nazis and their cultural appropriation of the city. This Prague of the Protectorate, represented by Weil in the blackest comedy, inhabited by living statues and human grotesques, is a literary creation, which, in this extremely effective English translation by Marie Winn, carries some uncanny resemblances of style to the apocalyptic Hollywood of Nathanael West. In fact, the two writers were born roughly contemporaries, and while West died in an auto accident in 1940, Weil survived only by accident -- first as a dissident Czechoslovak Communist representative of the Comintern in the Soviet Union in the 1930's, then as a Jew in Prague during World War II.
Thirty years after Weil's death his novels are being translated into English, and, more important, with Czechoslovakia's revolution of 1989, they are being rediscovered and published again in Prague. Jiri Weil was a writer who witnessed the worst of this century and testified to his experience in works of unflinching and astonishing literary vision. Weil himself, looking up at Mendelssohn on the roof, was altogether aware of the political upheavals and ironic reversals that have conditioned artistic reputations in the 20th century. THE HEART IS THE LAST TO GO
After a while no one remembered he was a doctor. He had become a rare case and he lived like one. In the end it didn't make any difference, because he had long since ceased to be a living person. . . . It was hard to figure out why he, of all people, had been struck by this disease that was turning him into a living statue. . . .
The heart will probably be the last to go, it will probably continue to beat quietly for a while even after the lungs have turned to stone and he has stopped breathing. He'll never see Adela and Greta again. He had promised his sister that he'd take care of them if anything happened to her and Richard. But now he can't keep his promise. He had begged Jan, his last remaining friend, to look after them. . . . Jan Krulis came in, sat on the edge of the bed, leaned toward him, and whispered the news. It was bad news. . . . Transports were leaving for the fortress town, and continuing from there to the East. . . . It didn't depress him to hear this news, though it was dismal. He was able to listen to it because he had settled his accounts with life long ago. He had only one remaining responsibility and it weighed heavily on him all the while his body was turning to stone: Adela and Greta. Jan told him that they were living with friends, that they weren't registered anywhere, that they could never go out. Jan managed to get food for them and went to visit them occasionally late at night. They were being brave -- no need to worry about them. He smiled at this, because his face hadn't turned to stone yet...      
A doctor bent over his bed. "We must move you out of here, Doctor." . . . They hadn't called him "Doctor" for a long time. Things must really be bad. -- From "Mendelssohn Is on the Roof." - Larry Wolff

In his bestselling HHhHLaurent Binet referenced this novel about Nazi-occupied Prague, published posthumously in 1960. I assumed it was an obscure book, long out of print; so imagine my surprise when I spotted a copy in Oxfam a few months ago. I should say a few words about Jiří Weil himself as a kind of introduction (and, if you want to find out more, there is the ubiquitous Wikipedia page). He was born in 1900 into a Jewish family, in a village near Prague and, in his early twenties, joined the Communist Party. He travelled to Moscow, where he remained for a few years, until the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist purges drove him into exile and then back to Prague. He had already established himself as a writer before the Second World War. Unable to join his family in the UK before the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Weil was forced to remain in Prague, where he was employed at the Jewish Museum. When an order came for his transportation to the Jewish ghetto town of Terezin in 1942, he faked his own death and spent the rest of the war in hiding, moving from place to place, one step ahead of the Gestapo. He eventually died of cancer in 1959. I felt it was important to include this short biography because it explains some of the differences between Binet's book and Weil's. Binet is writing with the benefit of hindsight, making the most of the drama and breathless cat-and-mouse game of the past. Weil is writing about a period he actually lived through - a period he, with the rest of his fellow Czechs, had to try to survive without losing their own humanity in the process. And one must never forget, in reading his book, that it reflects the bitter, ridiculous and frequently horrific reality of living in an oppressed country.
Mendelssohn is on the Roof begins with an absurd situation. Julius Schlesinger, a middle-ranking SS officer with a chip on his shoulder, has been ordered to remove the statue of the composer Mendelssohn (who was born into a Jewish family) from the roof of the Rudolfinum concert hall. There's just one problem. Schlesinger has no idea what Mendelssohn looks like; and nor do his two workmen. In desperation, Schlesinger orders them to pull down the statue with the largest nose - and only just manages to avert disaster as the workmen sling their noose around the neck of Richard Wagner, darling of the Reich. The story spirals out from here, fuelled by the paranoid suspicion that exists not only between the Czechs and their Nazi overlords, but also between different levels of the Nazi hierarchy, between the SS and the Gestapo, and even between colleagues. It follows the fates of the unfortunate Schlesinger, the workman Becvar, the freedom fighter Jan Krulis, the children in hiding Greta and Adela, and the labourer Richard Reisinger. In tracing their stories, we go into the web of the Nazi bureaucracy; into ordinary people's homes; into the annexes of those who hide and protect others; and into the heart of the ghetto. Heydrich makes a brief appearance, although in contrast to Binet's book his assassination is very much a sideshow. This book explores what happens when the normal rules of life are subverted. What happens to normal people when their city is occupied?
What is surprising, perhaps, is that life goes on. Weil's book surprised me not simply because of its satirical tone, but also because it shows us the way that the Czech people refused to be cowed by their occupation. They adapted, and they continued to enjoy their usual pleasures as much as possible. There's a chapter towards the end of the book where a party of locals set out on an excursion: a river cruise. They laugh and joke and sing and look forward to the simple pleasures of getting out into the country: this spirit and cheer might be something they force themselves to assume, in order to protect themselves against the weight of their despair, but the point is that they do assume it. No matter how dark the moment gets, Weil tells us, the people still have hope for the future, even if it is a future they will never have the chance to see. Weil's pride in his beloved country bleeds out of the text:
He knew that one of these days death would find him, too. It would come to him in the guise of men wearing trench coats and green tufted hats. Then the countryside would dim and take on the darkness of a bunker. It would die, but just for him. Its hills and mountains, its fields and meadows, its forests and rivers would live on. Let them burn it to the ground, let them ravish its fields and transform its meadows into swamps. Grass would still grow out of the ashes, the earth would absorb the water, and people would plough its fields once again. They could never conquer it.
And yet, as the book goes it, it loses the satirical air with which it began. It continues to be absurd, but it's an absurdity of a hollow, deeply shocking sort - the absurdity of a world in which death can be dealt out on a whim; in which people are arbitrarily given or denied rights; in which horrific violence can be shrugged off because it is exercised against 'subhumans'. There is not only the constant fear and suspicion - because who knows when the enemy will arrive banging on your door in the middle of the night? - but also the shame and despair of those who find themselves forced to cooperate with the occupying forces in one way or another - often in the faint hope of being saved or treated more kindly because of their assistance. The full ghastly horror of what Weil and his peers lived through slowly emerges from the farcical episode with the statue; and so it should. If we don't know the truth of what happened, how can future generations understand exactly how vital it is that such a thing should never happen again?
Statues appear throughout the book, whether as sculptural elements on balustrades or bridges, symbols of justice (to be destroyed), symbols of history and heritage or - in one case - a medical oddity, as Jan Krulis's friend finds himself struck by a disease which causes him to gradually petrify from the outside in. Through all these statuesque appearances runs a thread of references to Mozart's Don Giovanni - the opera in which in the evil protagonist is eventually thwarted and dragged down to eternal damnation by the animated statue of his own father. It might be a slightly heavy-handed allegory, but it's certainly powerful.
This is a difficult book to judge as a book, because its subject is obviously so emotive that you feel obliged to celebrate its honesty and bravery as a piece of literature. It feels petty - even shameful - to comment that perhaps there are moments when the book feels a bit choppy, and that maybe the characters could have been even more engaging with a little more depth. How is it fair to make such comments when this is a raw and deeply shocking first-hand record of what it felt like to live in the middle of the Holocaust? One thing does need to be noted, however: it transpires in the final pages that Weil, for all his patriotism and courage, is no less ideologically indoctrinated than those who occupied his country (simply in a different and less murderous way). For the book ends with the imminent arrival of the Soviet troops - spreading laughter and flowers, if you believe Weil, single-handedly pushing back the edge of darkness. This Communist eulogy struck a flat note for me - it suggested that Weil's people were only exchanging one kind of oppression for another, which in fact did come to pass, although the full weight of its effects only came to be realised years after Weil's death. It is a sobering conclusion to a story about the desire for freedom.
Managing to blend satire with the deeply horrific facts of life under the Nazi regime, this is the kind of book that should be read if you have any interest in domestic life in occupied Europe - or if you've read HHhH and want to understand more about Prague at that period.  It is gripping, for its subject and its assembly of various characters, of many different stripes, who are all struggling to survive in a world gone mad. I would also say that it's important that we read books like this in order to face up to our past, in order to be shocked by it, and to be galvanised into establishing a future where such a thing can never be repeated. - The Idle Woman 

Municipal official and SS candidate Julius Schlesinger has been sent to remove the statue of Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music, but he can't work out which of the statues that is. So his boss Krug goes to the Elite Guard of the SS, who after some dispute send someone to the Jewish Ghetto to find a learned Jew. But the Council of Elders gives them Dr Rabinovich, whose learning extends to the complexities of Torah interpretation, not the identification of secular musicians he doesn't even consider Jewish... Eventually Krug's wife remembers that they have friends who know something about music and the statue is taken care of. In the fallout from all of that, however, Schlesinger is sent to the front and Antonin Becvar, one of the Czech workmen involved, is sent to Germany as a forced labourer, serving as a fireman while the bombs fall. This is the bleakly comic strand of Mendelssohn is on the Roof, highlighting the banality of evil, its operation through ordinary and often incompetent bureaucratic processes and people. Above these loom the unnamed head of the Central Bureau, responsible for managing the transports to the death camps, and Reinhard Heydrich, Reich Protector and mastermind of genocide. Other stories illustrate the compromises made by the victims in their attempts to survive. Dr Rabinovich manages a Jewish museum for the head of the Central Bureau. Richard Reisinger works first in the warehouse where the Gestapo collect the goods confiscated from their victims, then as one of the ghetto guards who herd their fellow prisoners onto the transports. And Frantisek Schönbaum designs the gallows for an impromptu execution, in which a dozen men are murdered on a whim. Some of these people, and others, find ways to strike back against their oppressors. Meanwhile, a Jewish doctor in hospital, dying from a kind of locked-in syndrome, looks back over his earlier life and the pleasures of canoeing with his friend Jan; he worries about his nieces Adela and Greta, who he has entrusted to Jan's care and who are in hiding with a series of families. Mendelssohn is on the Roof is as much a series of linked short stories as a novel. Rather than attempting to present a single vision of the Holocaust, Jiri Weil instead approaches it from a multitude of perspectives, exploring its complexity through a range of characters. The result may lack the power of the great Holocaust memoirs, focused on the experiences of a single individual, but finds its own way to do justice to its subject. - Danny Yee

In my triptych of black satires informed by the atrocities of the Second World War, I had high hopes that this oft-neglected author would offer something as equally entertaining as that of Vonnegut and Heller, showcasing the rational humanism alongside the absurd and insane with a dash of gallows humour. It certainly starts out that way, with a low level municipal officer in occupied Prague being tasked with the removal of a statue of the 'Jewish'* composer Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music by the office of Acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Of course, he knows nothing of the likeness of Mendelssohn, so chooses instead the statue with the largest nose, which unfortunately belongs to Wagner.

I was salivating at the prospect of another comic masterpiece from Central Europe in the veins of Hrabal or Čapek, but sadly this is the high tide of comedy in the novel, and it occurs at the very beginning. What follows is a novel of fear, oppression and deep tragedy, told in as matter-of-fact a fashion as is possible considering the author himself faked his own death to avoid transportation to the death camps. In what reminds me of a Stephen King novel, the cast of characters introduced, including Heydrich himself, are ushered quickly through the farce to their doom, either to re-assignment to the Russian Front and inevitable death, or to the crematoria of the Final Solution, often under the auspices of the Gestapo. Heydrich avoids both fates, but dies in hospital after the infamous assassination attempt of Operation Anthropoid. Any humour, if there is some to be found, is sardonic. Throughout, the motif of the statue haunts the prose, whether it is the mocking statues of former heroes and patriots of various conquering or conquered nations, or Justice herself, astride roads and rivers, guarding bridges, or being smashed in air-raids, or the petrification of a person through fear, their inability to fight the rising darkness rendering them complicit in its abhorrent actions. And in a chilling finalé, the only truly innocent characters in the whole novel die just as the Russian tanks roll into Berlin to crush the remaining German forces and liberate Europe from the grip of Nazism. 
I'm left a little raw by the experience of reading Weil, and I suspect I might leave it a little while before I return to the literature of the Holocaust, if at all. However, I'm in complete agreement with the preface by Philip Roth that the brevity with which Weil delivers his testimony is the "fiercest commentary that can be made on the worst that life has to offer." As an apologist for overlooked Czech writing, I can commend this able storyteller with no fear of it being considered controversial and free of my habitual cynicism and sarcasm. - metaliterature.blogspot.hr/2014/12/mendelssohn-is-on-roof-by-jiri-weil.html

In what's more a collage of incidents and vignettes than a conventional novel, Czech writer Weil (Life With a Star, 1989) here celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in the face of death and the absurdity of life. Well's second novel is set in Prague under Nazi occupation, and its themes are established in the first part when the S.S. officer commanded to remove the statue of Mendelssohn on the roof of the Prague concert hall cannot identify him. Eventually Mendelssohn is pinpointed, but the Czech workmen merely pull him down and leave him on the roof. They are certain the Germans will leave one day. This tempered response to the monstrous absurdity of the Nazis is echoed in accounts of other, mostly Jewish, men and women. They survive by adapting, even collaborating if necessary, though continuing to uphold the truth in their hearts. A furniture designer is forced to design gallows; a scholar is ordered to inventory and display Jewish artifacts; and a young Jew is a guard for the transit train. All are aware of their complicity--""Perhaps God would have mercy on him for he had not sinned with any evil intent,"" the scholar prays on the train to the camps. But like the trees in the forest, ""when they Were forced to die, they died standing up--they were the life that overpowers death."" A small book that raises big questions, which Well attempts to answer in his realistic portraits of ordinary people struggling to survive--with some integrity and much spirit--under horrific conditions. A tad episodic, but cumulatively affecting. - Kirkus Reviews




Jiří Weil, Life With A Star, Trans. by Ruzena Kovarikova with Roslyn Schloss, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.
read it at Google Books
                             
'One of the finest novels of the century.' Independent

Stitched onto the jacket, worn over the heart, according to the rules for all Jews, the star turns Josef Roubicek into an outsider in his own city. Forced to lurk on the edges of Prague, to work as a gravedigger at the cemetery, and to keep off the trams and streets after curfew, he waits for a summons from them. Every day the grinding bureaucracy of evil brings new regulations, along with new lists of names to join the transports.

This remarkable novel traces one Jewish man's struggle to exist in Nazi-occupied Prague. Drawing strength from the smallest of things – a lost love, a stray cat, an onion – Josef determines to live, and realises that surviving against the odds is the greatest act of resistance.


Jiří Weil is one of those authors who defies logic and reason. By that I mean that anyone who has read him seems to rate him very highly indeed (now I do too); but few of his books are translated into English, and those that are slip in and out of print. Information about him is so patchy that I have been unable to be absolutely sure exactly when this book was first published. I was spurred into reading this longtime resident of my shelves by the recent reissue of Weil’s ‘other’ novel Mendelssohn is on the Roof. Curiously, the introduction by Philip Roth to this 2002 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Life with a Star is exactly the same as that in Daunt Books’ reissue of Mendelssohn. More curiously, it doesn’t really work as an introduction to either novel, spending only a paragraph on each, and reads as though it was cut from a longer piece by Roth, or simply that he lost interest halfway through.
Life with a Star (1948-49, tr. 1989 by Rita Klimova with Roslyn Schloss) is unlike any Holocaust novel I’ve read. Saying so may be as much offputting as enticing: there must be a part of every reader which thinks, What more can I learn, can I want to know, about this most famous of enormities? Yet this really is something special, partly because it could almost be as good a novel even with the Holocaust removed. How to explain what I mean by that? I could say that, because the book never uses the words ‘German’ or ‘Jew’, it could be considered to have wider application, to be an allegory for difference and oppression. But no, it really is of its time and place: Prague around 1940 as Nazis take control of the city. Instead, it has something to do with the narrative voice and the richness of the central character, his delusions and quirks. He has a story and a style which is winning even without – frankly – the reader feeling pity or fear for him.
The narrator and central character is Josef Roubicek. Or does the centre of the book lie elsewhere? “Ruzena,” he begins his story, addressing his lover, and she infiltrates the pages like a watermark, appearing in the last line too. Her presence serves more than one purpose. Josef (does referring to a character by his forename indicate empathy in the reader?) is telling Ruzena what’s happening to him so that he can tell us. Talking to himself might sever that empathy, or shake the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Ruzena also gives us an insight into Josef’s character before he became defined by his reductive status as a Jew in a city under Nazi rule. In fact what we discover is that Ruzena is not, as the intensity of his passion would have us believe, his wife or lifelong lover, but another man’s wife, and with whom Josef had only a brief fling before they parted. He tells the reader this, but doesn’t seem to believe it himself: he longs for Ruzena and expects to be with her presently. He is perhaps delusional, though a better way of putting it might be that in his current circumstances, any hope to cling to is better than none. Indeed, it might be humour of a sort that Josef’s greatest gripe against the Nazis is that they have caused his lover to flee and left him alone.
Not that Josef doesn’t have plenty of other reasonable gripes against the regime. The real time of the novel details the progressive restrictions placed on ‘us’ by ‘them’. “They kept thinking up new laws and regulations for us. Maybe it was fear that made them so diligent, but I couldn’t understand their fear, because there were so few of us, and, after all, we hadn’t defended ourselves.” Already at the beginning of the book, Josef has “burned even the bed and the wardrobe … because I have no coal and because I didn’t want to give them anything.” There is an cruel comedy to some of his difficulties: he is not allowed to buy meat, only blood (“I could make a soup out of it; at least it was a little like meat”). But he is also not allowed to shop in the morning, and the butcher is sold out of blood by lunchtime. He is forced to relinquish almost everything he owns (“a messenger came from the Community with orders that I hand over any musical instruments or typewriters”), even when everything has already gone. “They continued to want things of me and I didn’t have anything.” He also endures a series of meetings with officials, summonsed to offices across town (when he is no longer permitted to ride the streetcar), which for the purposes of skirting reviewerly cliché I shall refer to as Kafkaish. His meetings with family and sympathetic figures in the city don’t go much better. Once, when Josef is visiting an old classmate, Pavel, two nameless people come to the door and begin examining the room:
They didn’t say a word. They didn’t look at us; they pretended not to see us at all. […] They only looked at the objects in the room. They calculated loudly between them the quality and sturdiness of various objects; they discussed how they would move the furniture around. We were already dead. They had come to claim their inheritance. - John Self

I continue my series of book reviews related to the Nazi genocide with Jiří Weil's Life with a Star - a fictional novel about a Jewish man, Joseph Roubicek, living in Prague under Nazi domination during the Second World War. My copy, picked up in a second hand bookstore, was translated from the Czech in 1989 by Rita Klímová and Roslyn Schloss. It is one of the most impressive fictional novels based on the Nazi genocide that I've read - and certainly should be considered and studied as a 20th century classic.

The book is partially inspired by Jiří Weil's own experiences during the war - when he was given notice to report for a transport to the Terezin concentration camp in November 1942, Weil staged his own suicide, and then went into hiding for the remainder of the war. I'm very curious about this business of his staging his own suicide. It got me thinking - if the need ever came up, how would I go about staging my suicide? Unless you were going to try to pull it off with fire (or by drowning), you'd need a cadavre - and a fairly fresh one at that. One that was approximately your age and appearance. But where does one go about finding such a cadavre - let alone dragging it all the way to your house? Do you seat him next to you on the tramway and prop up his head? Nothing about this on the Internet in English (that I could find anyway) - though I'd be delighted if somebody could enlighten me.
The character Roubicek is not very daring to begin with - I almost feel the author created him as a sort of anti-hero. Roubicek himself admits to lacking courage. He cannot bring himself to attempt an escape from the Czech Republic while it is still possible, and accepts all of the Nazi anti-Jewish edicts as fate. Yet, little by little he begins to contemplate going into hiding instead of going on a "transport", when his summons arrives. This idea is made possible by a meeting with a certain Joseph Materna, a communist factory worker active in the anti-Nazi resistence.
Yet despite coming off as an "everyman" or "anti-hero", Joseph Roubicek does put into practice certain courageous (or, at least, unusual) decisions even before the novel begins. He burns the vast majority of his possessions, and does his best to make his modest house unlivable by breaking the rooftiles, so that the Nazis will gain nothing by getting rid of him. This difficult early decision, to break the tie with his own possessions, gives him a huge amount of freedom when compared to his fellow Jews. As Janis Joplin put it, "When you ain't got nothin' you ain't got nothin' to lose" (I doubt she coined that expression - though I'm not sure who did).
A large portion of the novel relates Roubicek's imaginary conversations with his former lover, Ruzena, and with a stray cat, Tomas, who decides to move in with him. He discusses with them the latest Nazi edicts and prohibitions - often with sardonic humor. We are also privy to his real conversations with fellow Jews, as he begins working on mandatory community service. And throughout these conversations, Roubicek attempts to understand what is happening to him and others, and what the correct attitude should be towards the oppressors, towards their prohibitions, towards hunger and poverty, and towards death.
Part of the story's power lies in Weil's conscious decision to never use the words Nazi, German, Jew or Communist in the narrative. The Nazis are referred to as "them", while the term "us" is generally used to refer to Jews (but sometimes to the Czech people as a whole). This partially reflects Roubicek's personality: he seems to feel only very vaguely Jewish (though some religious references to psalms show that he isn't completely ignorant of Jewish culture). He would like to consider himself as a Czech citizen, or at least as a citizen of Prague, but this possibility is taken away from him. The refusal to name the groups involved in persecution and submission may also be a conscious decision by the author to make the novel more universal in nature: a refusal to accuse certain groups as a whole, but rather an attempt to reveal facets of universal human nature, both in the oppressor and the oppressed.
It is not a novel where very much "happens". It is more a description of Roubicek's slow psychological transformation towards an attitude of resistance. Nevertheless, I found myself turning the pages eagerly, and bursting out into bitter laughter on several occasions. Weil as a writer is far from politically neutral - he joined the Young Communists in 1921, translated Marx and Lenin into Czech, but criticised the Stalinist purges and was forced out of the party in the 30's. In some ways his biography parallels that of Milena Jesenská, about whom I had already written. They both lived in Prague in the first half of the 20th century, both joined the communist party, and both left it (or were forced to leave it) after reacting to Stalin's excesses. The fact that Weil was attracted by Communist idealism, yet refused to simply follow the party line in his thinking, makes for a particularly interesting read. It is hard to know to what extent Roubicek's questions and dilemmas mirror Weil's own. But one thing is definite: the novel is not simply a way of making a political statement. It is a highly imaged psychological novel, full of concrete everyday details of what Jews underwent in Prague during the Nazi occupation, always analysing and questioning those details, and gripping us with the constant looming threat of death.
If you have a chance to read it, don't hesitate. As for me, I'm on the lookout for a good translation of what is claimed to be Weil's other literary masterpiece, "Mendelssohn is on the Roof". - Moyshele Rosencrantz

We have Philip Roth to thank for this introduction to one of Czechoslovakia's most influential writers. It was he who suggested an English-language edition of ''Life With a Star,'' saying in his original letter to Farrar, Straus & Giroux: ''I think that the book is, without a doubt, one of the outstanding novels I've read about the fate of a Jew and the Jews under the Nazis. I don't really know of one quite like it.''
If only Jiri Weil could see that letter! It's a situation where you wish the dead were able to peer down from heaven. Certainly he didn't hear much good news while he was alive. Born near Prague in 1900, he worked in the constant shadow of government disapproval. His first novel, written in the mid-30's, led to his expulsion from the Communist Party: too bleak a portrait of Stalinism. Later he was expelled from the Writers' Union as well. One of his books did not see print until 30 years after he wrote it - and then only in Italy. ''Life With a Star,'' which is generally agreed to be his major work, was denounced for its ''pernicious existentialism.'' He died in Prague of cancer in 1959, lonely and unhappy. All of this we learn from Philip Roth's preface and not, I am sorry to say, from the standard encyclopedia, where Weil's name goes unmentioned. Also from the preface comes the notion of Weil as a Czechoslovak version of Isaac Babel, which seems apt. Both writers felt the consequences of being Jewish and anti-Stalinist; both worked more or less in a vacuum for much of their careers. Above all, both reported brutal truths in an oddly level, calm, unsurprised tone of voice. The hero of ''Life with a Star'' - a former bank clerk named Josef Roubicek - tells us his story so matter-of-factly that he might be describing a trip to the grocery store. He lives alone, he says, in the garret of a small house on the outskirts of a certain city. This house has no furniture, because he has burned it. It has no running water, because he has smashed the pipes. It leaks, because he has chopped through the roof. He has ruined the house deliberately, so that it will be useless to ''them'' after ''they'' have come for him. At first the focus is mere subsistence - how Josef manages to keep warm, to catch some sleep, to feed himself. ''They'' won't allow him to buy meat; only blood. ''They'' won't let him own a musical instrument, or eat asparagus, or shoot partridges or travel by steamer. Then the story widens. Josef acquires a pet, a thin, mistrustful alley cat. He makes the acquaintance of a laborer who counsels resistance and rebellion. He's assigned a job raking leaves at a cemetery with other men in similar circumstances. He sees multitudes of people shipped off in transports, never to be heard from again. The language Josef uses to convey all this is arrestingly spare. Sentences are short and they follow in quick succession, rat-a-tat. Translating Josef's words must have been as straightforward a task as translating Chekhov; certainly the job has been accomplished (by Ruzena Kovarikova with Roslyn Schloss) unobtrusively. Why, then, does the translator's prefatory note appear to sabotage the novel's aim? ''Throughout the book,'' this note confides, ''the unnamed 'they' are the Germans, who occupied Czechoslovakia from March 1939 . . . [ till ] May 1945. The city is Prague, the river that runs through it the Vltava (or Moldau).'' To begin with, only someone born on another planet would be unable to guess who ''they'' are. The real sin, however, is the confounding of Jiri Weil's intention. Poor man; not even in death, not even in a country where most people earnestly wish him the best, is he allowed to have his way. For the whole point of his book is its avoidance of the particular. Never does the word ''Nazi'' appear; never the word ''Jew.'' When Josef bypasses certain cafeterias, he says it's because of their NO ADMITTANCE signs; other signs say ADMITTED. Who is or is not admitted remains unspecified. The yellow cloth star of the title bears ''a word in a foreign language written in black scraggly letters,'' but Josef doesn't tell us which foreign language, or what the word means. His story, therefore, takes on elements of the universal. ''They'' could be anyone, and might be anyone else the next time around, if there is a next time. But an even more valuable result of the author's refusal to ''place'' his hero is our growing sense of how uniquely, painfully isolated the Josefs of this world must feel. Josef never says, ''We were not permitted,'' but rather, ''I was not permitted.'' ''There was a law,'' he tells us, ''that I wasn't allowed to be on the streets after eight o'clock in the evening. It wasn't written in any police regulation; I wasn't notified of it in any way. It got around by word of mouth; it was demonstrated by example. For a long time I didn't know about this law, but then I had heard it whispered about.'' That recurring ''I,'' those whispers - the implication is that he, as an individual, has somehow been found personally odious. They, the many others, shun his presence. Whatever his religion or race or political allegiance, on one level he perceives that he is singularly objectionable, and as he wanders the streets of the unnamed city, skirting the unnamed river, hiding the unnamed word on his chest with his briefcase, he radiates a sense of such bewildered hurt that we have no choice but to share it. Paradoxically, therefore, this tale of nonspecifics becomes devastatingly specific. Jiri Weil's stripped, stark, uninflected novel makes us realize that when people are shipped off, no matter in what numbers, they go one by one by one. 'THEY WOULD NOT GET ANYTHING FROM ME' ''Ruzena,'' I said, ''at this moment people are sitting down to well-set tables. There are flowers in vases. Plates clink, and steam rises from soup bowls. People begin to eat. They cut their meat with their knives and pick it up with their forks, they wipe their mouths with napkins and drink beer, and then they rest, contented, everywhere, in restaurants and in homes.'' Ruzena could not answer. She was not in the room, she was not with me at all. I didn't know what had happened to her. I hadn't seen her for a long time. Perhaps she was not on earth anymore, perhaps she had never even lived. But I spoke to her. I had to speak to someone. I cooked my food on the drum-shaped stove. I was cold because the stove didn't warm the garret, the doors and windows didn't close tight. My attempts to seal them with old socks didn't help. I had cleaned the stovepipe twice. I was tired, dirty. I was in despair and it was lunchtime. ''Ruzena,'' I said, ''people are drinking coffee now, well, maybe not real coffee, but they are sitting somewhere warm, after a satisfying lunch, and I am freezing, Ruzena, and I am hungry. . . .'' I had to talk to someone. I was alone, quite alone in the icy garret full of smells and smoke. I had to restart the fire. I blew into the burning embers, afraid the fire would go out again; I only had a few matches. . . . I had burned the bed and the wardrobe. I had burned everything I could because I had no coal and because I didn't want to give them anything. They would not get anything from me, not even the old socks I used to seal the windows and doors, or the curtains that I used as rags to clean the floor, or the furniture that had already been swallowed up by the stove. I didn't yet know what to do with the mattress. I had to sleep on something. . . . I intended to burn the mattress as soon as they tried to do something with me. . . . When they came to confiscate the furniture they would find nothing but cracked walls, an empty garret, the broken-down stove, and, in the middle of the room, the coffee table; this useless piece of furniture would reign over the room. . . . '' 'Run away, Josef,' you said. . . .'' I did not run away. I was afraid to cross the border. I had no one who would go with me. I was alone and there was no one to advise me. I was afraid they would catch me at the border. I would not have known what to do in a foreign country. From ''Life With a Star.'' - ANNE TYLER

Life With a Star is a story of survival and hope in the face of certain death and relentless despair. It is about making sense of the senseless and finding beauty in decay. More than any other book I have read, Life With a Star shows how the human spirit can vanquish even the most determined enemy. To understand, consider how you would make sense of your world if a knock on the door meant that the government, with the help of your neighbors, had decided to give away your home and possessions down to the clothes on your back; and that once fully dispossessed, you would be herded like livestock onto a train which would deliver you to your miserable death? What would it be like to be told that while you waited to be called to the train station you must wear a large and bright yellow symbol to make you easy to pick out of a crowd? And what if that symbol was beloved by you and your people, reminding you of your ancient heritage? The answer is that you couldn’t make sense of any of it, even if your race had been despised and persecuted for millennia. So how might you survive such a nightmare; and then, much later on, how would you tell this story without breaking down?
Jiří Weil, the author, survived by pretending to die and then hiding for three years. Much later, when the terror was far enough in the past, he wrote Life With a Star, the story of a Jewish man in Prague, Czechoslovakia, under Nazi occupation, as a way of explaining how it was possible to outmaneuver death of both body and soul. The titular star was a large, yellow star of David that the Nazis ordered all Czech Jews to sew a onto their outer garments for easy visual identification. Failure to wear a star was punishable by death, but wearing the star subjected one to harassment and discrimination; and every minute of every day of life with a star only brought the inevitable call to the train station that much closer.
Life With a Star is surprisingly beautiful and uplifting to read. The protagonist, Josef Roubicek, is a bank clerk who is neither rich nor privileged, but comfortable and in love. Before the German invasion, he and his beautiful Ruzena carried on a long and passionate love affair. Their romance ended when Ruzena and her husband were deported to a so-called work camp. Bereft, alone, and star-clad, Josef sustains his soul with memories of Ruzena and his body with stale bread and watery ox-blood soup. He clings to life even though giving in to death would be much easier for everyone. While his home crumbles around him and he eats food hardly fit for rats, Josef refuses to be defeated. Instead, he grows into a serene and memorable character. Josef dismantles and burns his furniture piece by piece so there is nothing left for the subsequent occupants, except for one “old broken-down coffee table.” To stave off loneliness, he maintains a dialog with Ruzena, reliving many of their conversations and intimate moments. Even though the floor is uncomfortable and he is always cold, Josef sleeps as much as possible because Ruzena frequently visits him in his dreams. When he wakes up to find that Ruzena has gone away again, his only other pleasure is to watch how a leak in the roof gets worse throughout the winter. Just knowing that the apartment will be uninhabitable by the time the Nazis get around to moving someone else in feels like victory.
Through the Jewish Community, a quasi-governmental organization made up of Jews doing the bidding of the Nazis, Josef was ordered to work in a Hebrew cemetery. He and his co-workers dug graves, raked leaves, and buried the fortunate dead. During breaks over tea, Josef and the other men became friendly – but not close – for reasons they all understood. When Josef was called to the train station, a clerical error gave him an opportunity to walk away, and in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity, he did just that. From then on, Josef understood that he was in an end game: that it was only a matter of time until his name came up again. During this stolen time, he appeared to go about business as usual, but out of sight he made some dangerous friends. One fine spring day, Josef met a man named Josef Materna, a Czech who hated the Nazis, and accepted an invitation to visit. Materna’s mother soothed Josef’s soul with fresh-baked buns while Materna and his allies, a fearless group of domestic terrorists, helped Josef find the courage within himself to rise above the ugly hatred that had invaded his world.
Josef’s relationships with the living included his aunt and uncle and a cat named Tomas. The aunt and uncle had taken Josef in as a child, treating him as their own until the Nazi invasion. Fear turned them into angry and bitter people and they drove Josef out of their lives. Meanwhile Josef allowed Tomas, who sought refuge from stone-throwing children, to live in his apartment. Josef and Tomas found comfort in each other: Tomas offered companionship and Josef shared bits of his meager meals. To the aunt and uncle, this small act of humanity was proof of Josef’s ingratitude for everything they had done for him because, they said, it put them at risk. In spite of their meanness Josef remained loyal to his aunt and uncle, and lovingly bid them farewell as they boarded the train to their doom.
To this day there are people who do not want to believe that the Holocaust happened. But it did happen. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, the Jewish population in eastern Europe plummeted from 15.3 million in 1933 to about 5 million within a decade, either from the genocide or by emigration. The Nazis themselves kept detailed records of the people they sent to their deaths: inventories of their possessions, birth certificates, passports, school transcripts, bank statements, and death certificates. In addition to the Nazi’s self-documentation, the Allies using still and movie cameras captured sickening images of the mass graves and death camps. To see the footage of living skeletons liberated from the Nazi camps and the piles of bones in the graves is a devastating, but necessary, experience.
Hatred of and violence against Jews dates back to antiquity when pagan Romans and Greeks desecrated Hebrew temples and forced Jews to disperse, hence the term “diaspora.” A Jewish scholar from Austria, Moritz Steinschneider, coined the term “anti-Semitism” in 1860 in his analysis of German feelings of superiority over the Semitic races – Jews, Arabs, and Assyrians. In 1880 Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist, published a pamphlet called “The Way to the Victory of German Spirit Over the Jewish Spirit,” in which he narrowed the definition of anti-Semitism to refer only to Jews. This pamphlet helped spark a social movement which laid the groundwork for politics based on genocide.
Approximately six million European Jews died at the hands of the National Socialist German Workers Party – under the leadership of a charismatic madman – following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. Economic collapse, catastrophic inflation, and wounded national pride created an environment ripe for demagoguery. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist with a mother complex, rose to power by tapping into Germans’ long-simmering resentment of Jews – a somewhat insular people who seemed prosperous in good times and bad – and called upon his countrymen to join him in bringing them down. It wasn’t enough to brutalize the Jews, to burn their homes and businesses, and commit random acts of violence against them. And, there were too many simply to deport, even if another nation would have taken them. Adolf Hitler declared that only a “final solution” would rid Germany, and eventually the world, of the “Jewish problem” forever. With chilling efficiency, the Nazis created a government program to round up, seize the assets of, and kill every Jew within the nation’s boundaries.
It was the Nazi’s programmatic anti-Semitism that enabled otherwise decent people to turn away as their Jewish neighbors were marched off to death camps. Meanwhile, the Nazis staged parades, rallies and other events to ignite nationalistic pride and to celebrate the superiority of the Aryan race. The message was simple: Germany could only achieve greatness if the Jews were eliminated. To reach that end, Hitler set out to “reclaim” the German Empire, first by annexing formerly German land in Czechoslovakia, then by invading Austria, Poland, and Hungary. Jews who had fled to those countries were once again in jeopardy. By creating a common enemy in the Jews, Hitler gained the allegiance of many eastern Europeans. Meanwhile, there were secret soldiers undermining the Nazis from within. Many so-called Aryans risked their lives to offer comfort and safe harbor to fugitive Jews. Others either through destructive acts or outright deception did their part to weaken the Nazis. Finally, good triumphed over evil and the nightmare came to an end.
Jiří Weil, a survivor of the Nazi’s surreal nightmare, pays tribute to the secret soldiers who risked life and limb to stop Hitler. Josef Materna exemplifies the internal resistance; Materna’s mother, with her warm buttered bread, represents the good people who kept starving Jews alive with illicit gifts of food; and Josef Roubicek with his child-like innocence reveals the cruelty of hate. Too many Jews were caught off guard and, like deer paralyzed by headlights, easily killed. Life With a Star celebrates the beauty of humanity which gave Josef and others like him the hope and courage necessary to survive. - Teresa Friedlander

In 1989, Farrar Straus and Giroux published the English translation of Weil's Life With a Star - 40 years after its first publication in Czechoslovakia. The book has a preface by Philip Roth and ecstatic quotes on its back cover from Arthur Miller, Harold Bloom and Irving Howe, and yet when I mention this astounding novel to people, I am almost always met with blankness. It may be that novels in translation often fare badly - at least in the United States. It may be that its subject matter, the Nazi occupation of Prague, is grim. I don't know. What I do know is that I read the book when it came out, and it burned itself into me, and that I've just read it again and its power is undiminished. Like so many others in the occupied city, Josef Roubicek finds himself a victim of the new order, a bewildering bureaucracy that has methodically erased the person he used to be. Weil never names the city or the country. The words German, Nazi and Jew never appear. There is nothing coy about these omissions. They are essential to the novel's uncanny immediacy, its urgent telling of a human story which, despite its particularity, refuses to locate itself in the past. - Siri Hustvedt


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