I began Jiří Weil’s 1945 Czech novel Life With a Star without knowing anything about it. Life With a Star. That could mean anything: life with a celebrity, for instance, or what it’s like to live with a celestial body in the house. A favorite student of mine had recommended the book to me, and had even gone so far as to loan me a copy, so I was interested. But a few pages in, I realized that this was a different sort of book altogether. The star in question is the yellow Star of David, worn by Jews during the Holocaust. And the entire book is haunted by an unnamed they and them: the Nazis, who occupied Prague between 1939 and the end of the war in 1945. My experience reading it was like the Wedding-Guest’s in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
`By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?…
He holds him with his glittering eye –
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The story is sad, desperately sad. It tells about lives at the very brink of existence, and considers the rule of death over life. But it was also utterly compelling, as if there were a fist around my heart while I read.
The novel is narrated by Josef Roubicek, a former bank clerk in an unnamed city. At the beginning of the book, Josef has no way to earn a living — most occupations have been banned to “people like him” (Jews are not named; the situation is never so explicit.) There are so many prohibitions that he cannot keep track of them all, and even if he could, they are self-contradictory: he is forbidden to ride on trains, but when he rides on trains he must take the last car. He is terrified to do anything, lest he cross some unknown line. Everyone around him is equally terrified. Entire families are being transported, either to the east, to camps, or else to a fortress-city for labor. It is living death.
But it is still living: the book is Life With a Star, not Death With a Star. Bit by bit, tiny shoots of life appear. Josef has imaginary conversations with his former lover, Ruzena, and remembers their time together. He adopts a stray cat, Tomas — strictly against regulations. He meets a bold Communist and learns some new ideas about what is worth dying for and what is worth living for. He puts it bluntly:
“How come,” I asked myself, “they manage to instill fear in everyone? How come everyone obeys them, when death is so easy? A person can die only once, but we are dying a thousand deaths. They have taught us to fear death because we have become ensnared by laws and regulations, because we have tried to use them as a magic formula to chase death away.”
In other words, if no one feared death and so no one obeyed the laws — no one wore the star — such a life could not exist.
Roubicek gets a job raking leaves and growing vegetables in the cemetery. There, he meets other people from all over town and begins to form ideas and draw conclusions about what is happening in his city. Finally, he is renewing a permit to ride the streetcar — another bureaucratic nightmare — and one final event opens his eyes for good.
I am used to reading about the Nazis as men with a grand plan. They were ethnic cleansers, they had big ideas about race and Aryanism, and so forth. This book was shocking in its total lack of any grandeur at all. It presents “them” as simply greedy: eager for the gold, jewelry, stocks, bonds, mortgages, and property these murders will provide. They worship things, and therefore they worship death. I don’t honestly know that one motive for murder is better than another, but seeing the Nazis as common thieves makes the pointlessness of the deaths even more heartbreaking.
Life With a Star finishes with the tiny shoots of life and hope having taken such root in Roubicek’s life that he can no longer quell or ignore them. His own life may have no meaning left for him, but he intends to live: death ( and “they”) will not win in the end. The power of the detail in this story of survival and desperation and perseverance left me moved and shaken. This was an amazing book. And again, I was like the Wedding-Guest:
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.