Josef Roubicek, a former bank clerk, lives alone in an empty house. He’s destroyed almost everything he owns because he doesn’t want “them” to get anything of his. So, now, he scrapes by, moment to moment, day to day, eating the meager rations he’s allowed, doing the jobs assigned to him, dreaming of his former lover, and wondering what will happen when he, inevitably, is called up to join a transport.
Czech author Jiří Weil was a Jewish man in hiding during World War II. His 1949 novel, Life with a Star, translated by Rita Klímová with Roslyn Schloss, presents an excruciatingly grim picture of daily life during those years, as experienced by someone who has been stripped of everything he has, yet still, somehow, has more to lose. The novel doesn’t go into detail about the politics of the time, nor does it spell out each and every indignity the Jews of Prague faced. It’s the experience of one man, and this particular man is both trying to be realistic about his situation and trying to ignore the details. He knows his choices are limited and his death perhaps certain, but he can’t be bothered to memorize every rule.
The book contains some remarkable passages about the German torment of Jews, the most striking perhaps being the comparison of the transports and work camps to a circus. Josef begins with his happy recollections of being a spectator at the circus, and then gets introspective:
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 never occurred to me that it was something seals did not usually do. I had also never seen a dog walk on two feet, with a little hinting cap on his head and a gun over his shoulder. But it was amusing to look at him as he walked around the circus arena. The circus was a wonderful, exciting place, where thing happened that I had never seen. It was thrilling to sit comfortably on the wooden bench and watch the acrobats.
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. I didn’t want to remember the horses running around and around or the dog jumping through a large hoop covered with paper, I wouldn’t lift my head to look at the ropes under the ceiling when I myself had to walk a tightrope and look down at the gaping faces.
To “them” (the only term Weil uses to refer to the Nazis in the novel), imprisonment, torment, and murder of Jews is an entertainment. They are forced to act against their nature to avoid immediate punishment.
In other sections, Josef remembers his past life, though the details are fragmentary. Most of the time, he just takes the next step in front of him.
For much of the novel, he lavishes his concern on a stray cat he names Tomas who turns up as his dilapidated shell of a home. Jews are not allowed pets, but he makes a friend of Tomas, feeding him tiny scraps from his meager meals and coming to love the feeling of his soft fur up against him each morning as he wakes. He has nothing, but he’s willing to give what little he has to sustain this little life.
By the end of the book, this willingness to sacrifice for another becomes important as Josef debates whether to allow some friends to help him hide when he is summoned to join a transport to the camps. His friends want to do it; they’ve done it for others, and they say they know what to do. But Josef knows that getting caught would mean death for them. Still, life wants to go on, and perhaps helping others and allowing them to help us is the only way to persevere. It’s not just about literal survival but about survival of the soul and spirit.
Weil doesn’t present the dilemma in such didactic terms, however. This is not a book that explains itself. It just puts you there, in the midst of it, having to figure out, with Josef, what the big questions are and what the right answers are when there seem to be nothing left.