Jiri Weil was one of the most remarkable Jewish writers that you’ve never heard of. Indeed, the Czechoslovakian-born author was underappreciated and relatively unknown outside of his native country; his works were considered controversial, and it was only well after his death in 1959, at the age of 59, that publishers introduced his work to English-speaking audiences.
According to Philip Roth’s introduction, “Life with a Star,” though a novel, is based heavily on Weil’s own experiences. He escaped being rounded up by Nazis in Prague by faking his own suicide and going into hiding.
Originally published in 1949, the book chronicles the lonely life of Josef Roubicek, who is struggling to survive during Germany’s occupation of of the Czech capital, Prague, while World War II is raging. New, nonsensical regulations seem to pop up daily, such as the prohibition against riding on trains and the simultaneous declaration that he must ride in the back seat of a train. He often visits his aunt and uncle, a subtly humorous element of the book, as the pair seem to blame him for the atrocities being perpetrated upon the Jews of Prague.
Josef is slowly dismantling and burning items in his apartment, symbolic for how he is slowly disappearing and becoming less of a person under Nazi rule. He is doing it so that when they come for him, they will have nothing to take. Josef later realizes that at least he still has the stars in the sky.
“I must look only at them, “ I told myself. “It’s a pity I didn’t think of them earlier. I won’t be alone anymore when I think of them. They belong to me and have always belonged to me. Nobody can take them away from me.”
In a clever literary device, Weil has Josef relay his thoughts through Tomas, the stray cat who has taken up residence with Josef (illegally, since Jews were not allowed to own pets).
Weil employs a stream-of-consciousness style of writing in part; time weaves back and forth between the present and the past, when Josef was a happy bank clerk and in love with Ruzena, his married lover. Josef also speaks to Ruzena as if she is still with him and dreams about her often.
Throughout the book, Josef’s isolation from the people of Prague is heartbreakingly vivid. He has many close calls where he defies curfew or covers the yellow star sewn on his clothing or is called to the administrative offices for instructions as to where to go, where to work, what he is allowed to do and not do. As he is declared unfit for hard manual labor, he is assigned to rake leaves in a cemetery, where he ironically finds comfort, warmth and friendship among a rotating group of co-workers.
The reader is made to feel Josef’s isolation and loneliness and what it must have been like to not know where your next meal is coming from or the terror of being called on to a transport bound for slaughter. Nonetheless, despite already feeling half-dead, Josef clings to life and hope:
“Hope didn’t weigh much when you put it on the scale.”
Don’t let the slim volume of pages and the seemingly simple storyline fool you: the book, written literally and metaphorically, is overflowing with inspiring ideas and mind-boggling turns of phrases.
For example, Josef describes the state of being hungry with this passage:
“There were signs everywhere, even in restaurants where they served potatoes with gravy, in shops, taverns. Even Hunger had learned to yell! I paced with him, back and forth, but he was more persistent.
Then he slowly settled down. He probably became used to me, so that there were times when he didn’t make himself heard. I was weak. Perhaps Hunger loves weakness; perhaps he wanted to see me humiliated. But I didn’t bargain with him. I was just glad he behaved himself. I was afraid I would wake him.”
Interestingly, Josef is not identified as a Jew, nor are the officials referred to as Germans or Nazis, only as “they.” Arguably, this has the effect of making this a more universal story, one that could be told even out of the context of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, it is clear that Weil’s main character was a Jew.
Weil was truly a magician with words, and nowhere is this more apparent than in a passage toward the end of the book, after which more and more townspeople were rounded up on the transports:
“Death was deaf to pleas. It was impossible to bribe her with flowers; it was impossible to make her smile and be kind. Nothing could disguise her ragged shroud. She was plain, a beggar, and only the fact that she was all bones prevented her from fastening a star to the place where she should have had a heart.”
Though Weil was a prolific author in his lifetime, his only other work that has been translated from the Czech is entitled “Mendelssohn is on the Roof,” which was published posthumously. Brilliant, moving and inspiring, “Life with a Star” deserves to be in the forefront of classic Holocaust literature.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)