The world of the absurd
|Mendelssohn on the roof of the Rudolfinum (second from the right next to Schumann)|
The novel starts out comically enough. Heydrich, Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and the principal architect of the Final Solution, is horrified when he spots a statue of the composer Mendelssohn on the roof of a Prague concert hall. A fiat goes out "Remove Mendelssohn from the roof". Unfortunately the young wannabe SS officer doesn't know what Mendelssohn looks like, so he follows the appropriate and ever correct Nazi racial guidelines and tells the Czech workers tasked with the job to remove the statue with the biggest nose.....they choose Wagner!
And so the novel begins, at terms comical and horrifying. It follows the day-to-day lives of powerful Nazis, a bizarre mix of high-culture and unspeakable violence and inhumanity; the Jews who are confined to the Prague ghetto, some of whom become complicit in the work of the Nazis in an effort to save themselves and their families, the families en route to Terezin and points east, and those who have gone underground and the brave people who shelter them.
Much of the power of the novel comes from the juxtaposition of everyday life both of the victims and the aggressors against lives which are anything but ordinary. You too are drawn into the question of what you would do in a similar situation. Perhaps most shockingly the Nazis are portrayed in all their horror, but also with their cultured backgrounds. You can't just dismiss Heydrich or his cohorts as evil, animalistic brutes - these were often educated people, who enjoyed listening to Beethoven when they weren't engaged in thuggery. Rabbi Hugo Gryn was once asked where was God in Auschwitz? His reply was "Where was man? Where was culture and art and music?" Questions that Mendelssohn is on the roof make you ask again and again.
Jiri Weil was a communist who fell foul of Stalin. Had he lived in the Soviet Union he would probably have disappeared into Stalin's murderous gulags. As it was he survived the war against the Nazis in hiding, only for his life post-war to be largely ruined by his opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. Ironically it's very clear in Mendelssohn that he still holds on to what he values in Russia. The novel is full of praise for the Red Army's liberation of the death camps and eastern Europe. By the time Mendelssohn was first published in 1960, just after Weil's death, attitudes towards the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe had changed dramatically. No longer liberated Czechoslovakia was back under the bootstrap of a totalitarian regime, but regardless of this the lesson of Mendelssohn is on the roof still resonates. Totalitarian regimes may come and go, and may for some time make their mark; but the human spirit ultimately cannot be broken. That goes on forever, long after the Heydrichs and Stalins of this world have passed into history.
I'll end with a very appropriate YouTube clip - Pavel Haas' Study for strings. Haas was a Czech composer, sent to Terezin he continued to write music, composing a number of pieces for the children of Theresienstadt, and this work among others. He died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1944.