In his bestselling HHhH, Laurent 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 the man he has killed. It might be a slightly heavy-handed allegory, but it’s certainly powerful.
This is a difficult book to judge, 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.