Edward W Batchelder

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Life with a Star
Jiri Weil, trans. Ruzena Kovarikova w/Roslyn Schloss
(Northwestern University Press)

cover of Life with a Star

Books about the Holocaust have come to fill a large category, as if the accumulating weight of documentaries and personal accounts might anchor the world against a drift into amnesia. The danger now lies in the opposite direction—that the profusion of material might lead to a banalization of the subject (as in the endless series of made-for-TV movies), and a corresponding numbness on the part of most readers. The human capacity for grasping horror, after all, is only so great (somewhat less than our capacity for generating it), and the immensity of the Holocaust easily overwhelms it.

Weil, an established writer in Czechoslovakia before the Nazis came to power, seems to have understood this in advance. Life with a Star, written in the late forties, doesn’t approach the terrors of the Holocaust directly but rather elliptically, through suggestion, innuendo, and rumor. It’s as if we were looking not at the thing itself, but at the outline of its shadow cast on a wall, or in this case, the shadow it casts on the life of the main character.

Joseph Roubicek, the narrator, is an ex–bank clerk who lives in a decrepit apartment on the outskirts of Prague. He himself has destroyed his apartment, and most of the furniture in it, to prevent it from being of any value to the Nazis. What is worthless will not be taken away from him, and one senses he has abandoned his life in the same spirit.

But as his history is filled in through daydreams and reminiscences (significantly, he is unable to imagine a better future and can console himself only with his past), it appears he has never had a very strong life in the first place. His one great love affair has failed because of his inability to act decisively, and he lingers in the melancholy of it, addressing long soliloquies to his absent love. He’s a Kafka character in a certain sense, a habitual man who, finding himself forcibly ejected from his usual life, is cast adrift without direction or meaning. What he drifts through, and observes, is the marginal existence allowed the Jews before the final deportations to the East.

What for Kafka is a spiritual void is here a political and a social one. Roubicek endures the gradually encroaching bureaucratic restrictions on his life. Certain streets become off-limits, and then the parks and the rivers as well. He is not allowed to work, to buy meat, or to ride on streetcars. This is the groundwork of genocide, the progressive retraction of the rights of citizenship and humanity from a given people, and neither Roubicek nor anyone around him does much to resist it. In one scene he is thrown off a streetcar and roughed up by soldiers. The other passengers “were looking at the floor, as if they were searching for a coin that had rolled under the wooden slats. Nobody spoke.”

Weil is scrupulous, though, in avoiding direct mention of either the Nazis or the Jews. The Nazis are simply “them,” the Jews “us” or more often, “I.” The star of the title, the yellow one the Jews were forced to wear, is described simply as having “six tips and a word on the star, all contorted and twisted, in a foreign language that seemed to make a face at me.” The tone of the book approaches that of a fable, specific in its details but universal in its message. The narrator, for his part, remains numb and uncomprehending, almost childlike in his recitation of events. Things take on a disproportionate value. He worries more about his cat, or the horses taken from a farmer he meets, than the fate of his aunt and uncle. He composes his soliloquies yet seldom speaks to other people.

Eventually, the book retreats from this existential null point, and Roubicek begins to reclaim his humanity. He is assigned a job growing vegetables in a graveyard, the only land the Jews are allowed to cultivate, and he begins a process of reflection on death. When the Nazis build a center for the processing of the deportees, and tell everyone they are building a circus, Roubicek remembers his childhood:

When I watched the seals pushing a ball with their snouts I didn’t know it was a bad thing to be an animal in the circus. It did not occur to me that it was something that seals did not usually do. . . . But when I myself was to perform in the circus, I didn’t like to remember the sound of the whip and the cries of the tamers.

But even animals, a farmer tells him, will not do certain things. Why then, wonders Roubicek, will humans do anything, even participate in their own destruction, in a desperate attempt to cling to life? He sees it is not just death that awaits him, but a faceless, nameless death. He makes a decision that gives him hope, not so much for survival as for a life and death outside the regimented extinction the Nazis have prescribed for him.

As Czeslaw Milosz has noted, most survivor’s tales stand outside of literature—they are human documents in which the anguish simply overwhelms any concern with aesthetic form. It’s as if language itself buckles and breaks down under the weight of the narrative. Yet the deliberate structure and form Weil has given his book are more than an academic pleasure, they are the means by which an incomprehensible event might be given meaning and understood. In a remarkable passage, Roubicek rakes the graveyard and imagines a fable where the prayers for the dead rise up to heaven in a song, and then

“as the song flew off with the leaves and the leaves fell into the mud and dirt, they were raised up again by the wind, and they fell on plowed fields and flew about garbage dumps. The song became trite, the kind played on accordions in dance halls; drunks wept when they heard it. . . . But the tears of the angel of death, falling as pebbles, had always been in it . . . the song had always flown through the land with the blood of the martyrs.”

It’s a visionary moment, one that charts the story of the Jew’s sufferings through the extremes of ignorance, apathy, and trivialization. In a spare and understated novel, Weil has managed to evoke the full weight of the Holocaust.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Boston Phoenix)

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