Life With a Star by Jiri Weil, translated from the Czech by Ruzena Kovarikova with Roslyn Schloss (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 208 pages)
"Life With a Star" by the Czech Jewish writer Jiri Weil centers upon two much-argued and infinitely painful questions. Did the passiveness of the victims contribute in some measure to the fate of many Central European Jews who died under the Nazis? Did those Jewish organizations entrusted by the German occupiers with running the affairs of their community--until the death trains eliminated the organizations along with the communities--play a mitigating role in their people's fate, or did they simply make things easier for the butchers?
Weil answers the first question with an angry "yes." With equal anger, he calls the "Community"--the Jewish organization in Prague--a death machine, in fact if not in intention. It is not an answer most of us have a right to judge. As for Weil, whether he is right or wrong or both, he had the right to give it. During the war he chose a perilous clandestinity over an ultimately fatal submission to the governance of the Community. His defiance meant his survival.
To speak of terrible questions and angry answers is necessary in the context of "life," but it is also misleading. It is not a polemic or a history but a haunting, graceful novel. The questions and the anger, like the active agents in a medicine, are dissolved in the sweet and gentle voice of the protagonist. They act upon us even as we are all but unaware of them.
"Life" is the story of Josef Roubicek, a Prague Jew who lives in a garret while awaiting a summons to register from the Community's officials. The summons that will mean--it is early in the war and the transportations have not begun--official incorporation into the grotesque system that regulates the city's Jews: menial labor, few rations, limited permission to use the street cars, confiscation of gold, securities, lottery tickets, typewriters and musical instruments, prohibitions against hunting, attending auctions and eating pork.
Josef was a bank clerk who lost his job because he was Jewish. We hear him at the start lamenting the privation he lives in: little food, no fuel except his chopped-up furniture, fearful cold, a leaky roof that lets the rain in. And in counterpoint, we hear him remembering the days of freedom, prosperity and happiness with Ruzena, his lover, who has disappeared, perhaps to join the underground.
He is a man alone, and despite the sorrow and privation there is a note of pride in his words; a kind of foreshadowing of his odd victory at the end of the book. After managing to boil some water and make soup out of bones, he realizes that he loves his garret. He even loves his leak, "because it was still mine."
The summons comes, and Josef goes to register in the bureaucratic machine. (Naturally, we think of Kafka. In fact, the spirit of the book, its questions, and its mix of love and anger are more suggestive of Primo Levi.) He gets his yellow star, he gets work and an official standing.
This is oddly comforting. True, Josef finds himself, through three lucky strokes, in an oddly privileged position in the machinery that will soon begin its own destruction. He is assigned as a cemetery caretaker: Easy work, fresh air, little supervision, good companions and an opportunity to grow fresh vegetables. A friend, whose money is about to be confiscated, slips him some. And--once the deportations to the camps begin--the card with his name drops to the bottom of the file. He will be safe until the last cards are drawn, and the last Jews shipped off.
Josef's reflections and encounters detail his cemetery as idyll. But his idyll is a cemetery. Everyday some of his fellow workers disappear and others take their place. He walks his aunt and uncle to the transportation center; they assure him they'll be back in two months. He meets a friend who has just received his transportation number; it is a relief to be taken charge of, after so much daily struggle.
It is, indeed, a simulacrum of order and peace, and Josef feels its pull. Yet even in his cloud, there are voices urging him to resist. One is that of Ruzena, who had begged him to flee abroad with her while there was still time; he had refused out of timidity. Weil makes her ghostly reappearances chiding and magical.
He has also created two remarkable Czechs, non-Jews, who succor Josef and urge him to lose his fear. One is a railroad worker who picks him up when he is thrown off a streetcar because of his yellow star. He takes Josef to a tavern, feeds him and speaks witheringly of They, the Germans. For this working man, trains are sanity and decency; the Germans pervert them.