Mendelssohn is on the Roof: Jiří Weil

★★★½

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.

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11 thoughts on “Mendelssohn is on the Roof: Jiří Weil

  1. Isi says:

    Neither I knew about the book, but I'm about to recieve HhHH from the Spanish publishers; I'm looking forward to reading it, even though the title and the (Spanish) cover don't say nothing to me, but everybody is talking very good about the book.

    I have read some fiction novels about Prague and the Terizen guetto, but for me this novels are always interesting: I read a lot of fiction about Second world war, but I never get fed up with them.

    The thing about the comunists is also very interesting. I've read George Orwell's book about his experience at Spanish civi war and he was very disappointed about what he thought comunism was.

    PS: I'm reading your reviews little by little, because I have not much time.

  2. Leander says:

    Well, I don't know whether this is available in Spanish too – maybe not – but, if so, you might find it very interesting after HHhH. I'm looking forward to hearing what you think of that! What are the other novels you've read about this subject?

    Don't apologise about reading these little by little! I'm so pleased you read them at all. And there has been an abnormal number of posts going up in the last few days, because I did a lot last weekend that I wanted to write about. The next few days will be quieter, I promise: I'm off to a friend's wedding so will have other things than blogging on my mind 😀

  3. Isi says:

    Well, the last book about world war II I've read was written by a Spanish author, and I'm sure it is not available in English. It was interesting: the title is “The librarian of Auschwitz” and talks about a real woman, Dita Polachova (she is still alive), who was a teen there and was in charge of a secret library of 8 books there in the camp. The people there managed to create a “school” for the kids of the camp without the nazis knowing. And they were in the guetto previously.

    And I LOVE reading your blog. The only thing is that your posts are long (and they are perfectly right in that way) and I need my time to sit down and read them carefully 🙂

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Ivy and thanks so much for stopping in to offer your thoughts. It's great that the book is getting such academic attention: it certainly does seem to be obscure and I haven't come across it anywhere else recently.

    That's a good point, of course, about Weil having to include the ideologically acceptable slant – but I would still say that the ending has a rather sombre effect in that people seem to be escaping one method of indoctrination only to fling themselves gratefully into another. 🙂

  5. Ivy says:

    I'm an third year English Lit student, and we're studying this book for 'Holocaust Literature'. I must say I found this book a relief from all the other heavy stuff we did – Borowski, Primo Levi, Cynthia Ozick, Art Spiegelman. I just wanted to comment on your review as I don't think Jiri Weil was as “ideologically indoctrinated” as you might think. I believe he was a member of the (national) Soviet writing society at the time and that he had to include this in order to get his book published at all… Although he was a communist himself of course.
    By the way, thanks for reviewing this, I'm struggling to find sources about this book, which is such a shame!

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Completely agree. As I said above, that only became apparent some time after Weil died. It adds a shade of unintentional irony…

    Good luck with your essay! And please do share any other insights you might have, because I'd certainly be interested and I'm sure other readers would be too. 🙂

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    Good grief; I can just imagine your tutor thinking, “Who is this weird person?” and coming on here to see the general whittering about swords and Goltzius drawings and Vikings which is my usual fare…

    Seriously, though, I am immensely flattered that you think I have anything worth referencing! 🙂

  8. Ivy says:

    Hi Leander, I think you are right about the sombre ending – in fact, I'm devoting a paragraph in my esssay specifically on the ending. I suppose we must also consider that at the time it was written, it wasn't as clear as it is now that the Soviet Union would prove to be a huge failure.

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