Jiří Weil, born to Orthodox Jewish parents in a village outside Prague in 1900, was due to be transported in 1942. In order to avoid this, he faked suicide and spent the remainder of the second world war hiding in illegal apartments. He continued to write in this period, and his experiences at this time served to form the basis of some of his later work. Unfortunately, it seems that his writing is not well-represented in English translation, though Penguin have published Life With a Star and Mendelssohn is on the Roof. This is unfortunate as, beyond the importance of the subject matter of these two novels, Weil writes well and I’d certainly like to read more of his work.
Mendelssohn is on the Roof is a collection of scenes, rather than a complete narrative, which seeks to describe the brutality of the Nazi regime from the point of view of ordinary Czechs, including the Jewish inhabitants of Prague and even Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich isn’t mentioned by name, though it seems a reasonable inference that this is the man Weil is referring to. Weil attempts to, and largely succeeds in, demonstrating the constraints placed on people at this time, to show the brutality and idiocy of the Nazi regime and the devastating effects that it had on many lives.
Many of the vignettes that comprise this novel are, naturally, grim reading. Weil suceeds in making the book compelling but it is not cloying and sentimental. In part, this is due to the strong vein of black humour that runs through the novel.
To digress, slightly, I think treating the Nazis humourously is difficult to get right. Though, of course, many British people lost their lives during the second world war, both in the armed forces and due to the bombing of cities, our experience of the Nazis was completely different from that of European Jews, Gypsies or Slavs. The point being that while well-placed humour can serve to ridicule the vile behaviour and idiotic beliefs of the Nazis, I feel that some of the humour directed at Nazis which emanates from these shores is little more than empty-headed triumphalism. The basest form of this humour being the kind of things that one may hear chanted at England-Germany football matches (incidentally, I think John Cleese handled this well in the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans).
Weil, meanwhile, manages to place well-balanced humour in this novel which perfectly captures the stupidity of Nazi racial theories, whilst not failing to capture the brutal treatment of millions of people that sprang from this. An excellent example of this in the novel is an early scene, which gives the book its title, where two workmen have been ordered to remove a statue of the composer Mendelssohn from the roof of a municipal building in Prague. The statues on this building don’t have any plaques to identify who they are and neither of the workmen, nor the official passing on the order, know which of these statues is a representation of Mendelssohn. Schlesinger, the man in charge, had been following the racial theory classes given by the Nazis which expounded their theories and backed them with pseudo-scientific nonsense.
“Schlesinger was taking a course called World View, where they gave lectures on “racial science” and showed slides. The slides showed lots of noses, with measurements next to them. Every nose had been carefully measured. It was a very deep and complicated science but its findings were simple. The upshot was that the biggest noses belonged to the Jews.
The workers walked around the statues. How idiotic to make them look for the statue with the biggest nose. Becvar pulled out a folding wooden ruler he always carried with him. He had studied carpentry before he started working for Municipal. Now he built rabbit hutches after work. He made a good living out if it. People were fighting to get them – rabbits were in fashion.
‘Don’t be stupid.’ Stankovsky shoved him aside. “We’re not going to waste time measuring. Seriously now, we could miss lunch. Come on, we can tell just by looking which one has the biggest nose.’
‘Look,’ yelled Becvar, ‘that one over there with the beret, none of the others has a nose like him. So I’m going to put the rope around his neck, what do you say?’
‘Great,’ Stankovsky agreed. ‘Let’s go.’
He began to pull at the rope, and the statue was already beginning to wobble. Schlesinger was peeking out through the gate.
‘Jesus Christ! Stop! I’m telling you, stop!’
Becvar and Stankovsky let the rope drop from their hands. That Kraut was carrying on again. Why didn’t he look and see for himself which one had the biggest nose? Why didn’t he come out from behind that gate?
Schlesinger was sweating with terror. He didn’t recognise any of the statues except for this very one. My God, it was Wagner, the greatest German composer; not just an ordinary musician, but one of the greats who had helped build the Third Reich. His portraits and plaster casts hung in every household, and they also lectured about him in those courses.”
The other thing to note about the wider implications of this scene is the character of Schlesinger. Julius Schlesinger is portrayed as being a careerist, rather than necessarily an instinctive ideological Nazi. It seems that he doesn’t quite understand the theories being propounded in classes around racial theory and he fears that this may be due to a lack of intelligence on his own part (although he may genuinely not be too bright), where another explanation would be that the theories themselves are lacking. This points to a warning from Weil that while the kind of ideologues who made up much of the Nazi party were to be feared and marginalised, there is a great danger in accepting that this is the way things currently are, and avoiding making any ripples which might get you noticed, and not in a positive way. Schlesinger isn’t inherently bad, but in a desire to avoid hardship himself, allied with ambition, he becomes a part of the machine that would cause the destruction of so many lives.
One of the more poignant sections of the novel deals with Dr. Rabinovich. He had been required by the authorities to assist in the construction of a Jewish museum. Dr Rabinovich, clearly unable to refuse to do as he is ordered, finds himself assisting with this with heavy heart. He realises that the collection is intended to be a full-stop to the lives of European Jews. The Nazis wish to preserve this material as a historical curiosity, rather than as a memorial (given their intention to destroy the Jewish community). This is, obviously, damaging to Dr. Rabinovich, but it also involves the trampling on his beliefs. None of the people in command of him are particularly knowledgeable when it comes to Jewish culture, we are reminded of this by the phrase “Thou shalt not make graven images.” Naturally, it’s doubtful that the people who ordered this would be overly concerned with his sensibilities. None of this was intended as a celebration. There is something sad in these scenes, which nevertheless avoids the worst excesses of trite sentimentality.
There are many other lives covered in the novel, from many different backgrounds and with different challenges. Weil’s success with this is that he succeeds in avoiding any kind of simplistic good/bad moralising whilst never forgiving the atrocities carried out by the Nazis throughout the second world war (what the Nazis did was unequivocally wrong, but the motivations of many of the people involved are varied and it’s actually dangerous to characterise everybody involved as inherently evil).
Well worth reading for a flavour of the suffering of people living under the Nazi occupation in central Europe.