Life With a Star

life with a starI 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.

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6 Responses to Life With a Star

  1. Rebecca Reid says:

    Jenny, where do you find these great books?! I’m always impressed. This sounds amazingly powerful.

  2. Samantha says:

    Hi Jenny

    I have this book wishlisted at bookdepository.co.uk but unfortunately it has been out of print for some time. I think, based on your wonderful review, I will have to track down a secondhand copy as soon as possible.

  3. Claire says:

    Having just read The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, set in a Czech town in the lead up to WWII, I instantly caught the allusion. I am intrigued and will be trying to hunt this book down.

  4. cweinblatt says:

    Life with a Star sounds awesome. Sometimes authors use a novel or screenplay to support political or social beliefs; or to cry out for morality and ethical principles. This is no more clearly evident than with Holocaust books and films. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world.

    We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany – most in gas chambers. Despite this knowledge, Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

    I wrote Jacob’s Courage to promote Holocaust education. This coming of age love story presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality. I think that Life with a Star offers the same penetrating examination of the Shoah. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical reminders and remediation.

    Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Holocaust books and movies carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny’s only hope.

    Viewing the Holocaust through the eyes of young lovers represents a unique and emotionally penetrating analysis of Jewish life during the Shoah. Called, “Gut wrenching and heart rending” Jacob’s Courage allows the reader to comprehend the terror experienced by Holocaust victims on a personal level. Yet, it also reveals the triumphant spirit of humankind and demonstrates how ordinary people can perform extraordinary acts of courage when the lives of loved ones are in danger. Books usch as Life with a Star are to be commended

    Charles Weinblatt
    Author, “Jacob’s Courage”
    http://jacobscourage.wordpress.com/

  5. indyretreats says:

    thank you for the book recommendation…i’ll have to add it to my growing list of holocaust-related finds…i’m building a library to supplement my ongoing research

    chris
    Never Again!

  6. Pingback: Eastern European Authors « Diversify Your Reading

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