Being human

The old Jewish cemetery in Prague, where the hero of "Life with a star" worked
In the summer of 1917 the British architect, Edwin Lutyens was in northern France, he had been invited there by the wonderful Fabian Ware, founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Ware was the first person to decide that ordinary soldiers should be honoured with individual graves where possible. Until then soldiers had usually been buried communally on battlefields with only those of very high rank being repatriated or buried individually, leaving no grave for their loved ones to visit. You can read more about Ware, and the work of Lutyens here. The reason their story was on my mind in this season of remembrance is that purely by chance I came across a quotation by Lutyens contained in an early letter to his wife from the battlegrounds of the First World War "What humanity can endure and suffer is beyond belief."

And this tied in as a poignant echo to the book I was reading, Jiri Weil's Life with a star. Weil was born in Czechoslovakia, not far from Prague. He became a Communist, but fell foul of Stalin, and was thrown out of the Communist party - an event that was to impact not on his writing (he continued to write) but certainly on his reputation outside Czechoslovakia, where he has remained unknown until relatively recently. Weil was Jewish, and when the Second World War came was trapped in Prague. He was ordered to be deported to Terezin, but staged his own "death" and spent the rest of the war in hiding. His time in Prague leading up to his escape into hiding form the basis for this novel.

Nowhere in the novel are the words Jewish or Nazi, oddly this makes the novel more powerful as it means that you can neither distance yourself from the victims or the perpetrators. A lone man, Josef Roubicek, lives in a garret with his illegal cat - illegal because people like Josef are not supposed to keep pets. There is no explanation (indeed there could have been no explanation), it is something that Josef accepts even though he thinks it odd, and continues to live illicitly with Tomas the cat. Josef's only other "friend" is Ruzena, his former lover, to whom he speaks in his imagination frequently.

Meanwhile around Josef events become odder, weak people disappear east to do hard labour, Josef  is forced to appear regularly in front of a committee to check that the distance between his home and the committee building hasn't decreased, and families become invisible while other people view their homes with a view to moving into them. Childrens' toys are moved by night on the same carts that will become biers during the day.

I don't think anyone but a Czech writer could have written quite in the way that Weil does. There are moments that are pure Kafka. The scary thing is that much of this is based on truth. The bizarre red-taped face of the Nazi killing machine is exposed in all its hideousness.

Sounds like a grim read, huh? Well, it is. No-one is going to say that this is a cheerful book. But in a strange way it was also immensely uplifting because what shines through more than anything is that however much the Nazis tried to dehumanise their victims the opposite happened. In trying to dehumanise them the humanity of their victims shone out. Sustained by his love for Ruzena and Tomas, and his delight in the small things of life - a marmalade bun, vegetables grown in a cemetery, the smell of fresh air on the fur of his cat, his memories of Ruzena and the life they had lived - Roubicek staggers from the page resolutely human. A hero, who is also an Everyman enmeshed in the cogs of a machine much larger than he is but refusing, in the politest way, to accept a descent into something less than human.

This is such a well-written book, angry, sometimes darkly funny, moving. Wonderful, wonderful writing, and a fitting tribute to the Jewish population of Czechoslovakia. In 1930, a census revealed that there were over 117,000 Jews living in the country. By 1945 there were just 18,000. One of them was Jiri Weil.


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