Monday, August 3, 2009

Life With a Star

REQUIRED READING: Life with a Star by Jiří Weil

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

Life With a Star is a story of survival and hope in the face of certain death and relentless despair. It is about making sense of the senseless and finding beauty in decay. More than any other book I have read, Life With a Star shows how the human spirit can vanquish even the most determined enemy. To understand, consider how you would make sense of your world if a knock on the door meant that the government, with the help of your neighbors, had decided to give away your home and possessions down to the clothes on your back; and that once fully dispossessed, you would be herded like livestock onto a train which would deliver you to your miserable death? What would it be like to be told that while you waited to be called to the train station you must wear a large and bright yellow symbol to make you easy to pick out of a crowd? And what if that symbol was beloved by you and your people, reminding you of your ancient heritage? The answer is that you couldn’t make sense of any of it, even if your race had been despised and persecuted for millennia. So how might you survive such a nightmare; and then, much later on, how would you tell this story without breaking down?

Jiří Weil, the author, survived by pretending to die and then hiding for three years. Much later, when the terror was far enough in the past, he wrote Life With a Star, the story of a Jewish man in Prague, Czechoslovakia, under Nazi occupation, as a way of explaining how it was possible to outmaneuver death of both body and soul. The titular star was a large, yellow star of David that the Nazis ordered all Czech Jews to sew a onto their outer garments for easy visual identification. Failure to wear a star was punishable by death, but wearing the star subjected one to harassment and discrimination; and every minute of every day of life with a star only brought the inevitable call to the train station that much closer.

Life With a Star is surprisingly beautiful and uplifting to read. The protagonist, Josef Roubicek, is a bank clerk who is neither rich nor privileged, but comfortable and in love. Before the German invasion, he and his beautiful Ruzena carried on a long and passionate love affair. Their romance ended when Ruzena and her husband were deported to a so-called work camp. Bereft, alone, and star-clad, Josef sustains his soul with memories of Ruzena and his body with stale bread and watery ox-blood soup. He clings to life even though giving in to death would be much easier for everyone. While his home crumbles around him and he eats food hardly fit for rats, Josef refuses to be defeated. Instead, he grows into a serene and memorable character. Josef dismantles and burns his furniture piece by piece so there is nothing left for the subsequent occupants, except for one “old broken-down coffee table.” To stave off loneliness, he maintains a dialog with Ruzena, reliving many of their conversations and intimate moments. Even though the floor is uncomfortable and he is always cold, Josef sleeps as much as possible because Ruzena frequently visits him in his dreams. When he wakes up to find that Ruzena has gone away again, his only other pleasure is to watch how a leak in the roof gets worse throughout the winter. Just knowing that the apartment will be uninhabitable by the time the Nazis get around to moving someone else in feels like victory.

Through the Jewish Community, a quasi-governmental organization made up of Jews doing the bidding of the Nazis, Josef was ordered to work in a Hebrew cemetery. He and his co-workers dug graves, raked leaves, and buried the fortunate dead. During breaks over tea, Josef and the other men became friendly – but not close – for reasons they all understood. When Josef was called to the train station, a clerical error gave him an opportunity to walk away, and in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity, he did just that. From then on, Josef understood that he was in an end game: that it was only a matter of time until his name came up again. During this stolen time, he appeared to go about business as usual, but out of sight he made some dangerous friends. One fine spring day, Josef met a man named Josef Materna, a Czech who hated the Nazis, and accepted an invitation to visit. Materna’s mother soothed Josef’s soul with fresh-baked buns while Materna and his allies, a fearless group of domestic terrorists, helped Josef find the courage within himself to rise above the ugly hatred that had invaded his world.

Josef’s relationships with the living included his aunt and uncle and a cat named Tomas. The aunt and uncle had taken Josef in as a child, treating him as their own until the Nazi invasion. Fear turned them into angry and bitter people and they drove Josef out of their lives. Meanwhile Josef allowed Tomas, who sought refuge from stone-throwing children, to live in his apartment. Josef and Tomas found comfort in each other: Tomas offered companionship and Josef shared bits of his meager meals. To the aunt and uncle, this small act of humanity was proof of Josef’s ingratitude for everything they had done for him because, they said, it put them at risk. In spite of their meanness Josef remained loyal to his aunt and uncle, and lovingly bid them farewell as they boarded the train to their doom.

To this day there are people who do not want to believe that the Holocaust happened. But it did happen. According to the United States Holocaust Museum, the Jewish population in eastern Europe plummeted from 15.3 million in 1933 to about 5 million within a decade, either from the genocide or by emigration. The Nazis themselves kept detailed records of the people they sent to their deaths: inventories of their possessions, birth certificates, passports, school transcripts, bank statements, and death certificates. In addition to the Nazi’s self-documentation, the Allies using still and movie cameras captured sickening images of the mass graves and death camps. To see the footage of living skeletons liberated from the Nazi camps and the piles of bones in the graves is a devastating, but necessary, experience.

Hatred of and violence against Jews dates back to antiquity when pagan Romans and Greeks desecrated Hebrew temples and forced Jews to disperse, hence the term “diaspora.” A Jewish scholar from Austria, Moritz Steinschneider, coined the term “anti-Semitism” in 1860 in his analysis of German feelings of superiority over the Semitic races – Jews, Arabs, and Assyrians. In 1880 Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist, published a pamphlet called “The Way to the Victory of German Spirit Over the Jewish Spirit,” in which he narrowed the definition of anti-Semitism to refer only to Jews. This pamphlet helped spark a social movement which laid the groundwork for politics based on genocide.

Approximately six million European Jews died at the hands of the National Socialist German Workers Party – under the leadership of a charismatic madman – following Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I. Economic collapse, catastrophic inflation, and wounded national pride created an environment ripe for demagoguery. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist with a mother complex, rose to power by tapping into Germans’ long-simmering resentment of Jews – a somewhat insular people who seemed prosperous in good times and bad – and called upon his countrymen to join him in bringing them down. It wasn’t enough to brutalize the Jews, to burn their homes and businesses, and commit random acts of violence against them. And, there were too many simply to deport, even if another nation would have taken them. Adolf Hitler declared that only a “final solution” would rid Germany, and eventually the world, of the “Jewish problem” forever. With chilling efficiency, the Nazis created a government program to round up, seize the assets of, and kill every Jew within the nation’s boundaries.

It was the Nazi’s programmatic anti-Semitism that enabled otherwise decent people to turn away as their Jewish neighbors were marched off to death camps. Meanwhile, the Nazis staged parades, rallies and other events to ignite nationalistic pride and to celebrate the superiority of the Aryan race. The message was simple: Germany could only achieve greatness if the Jews were eliminated. To reach that end, Hitler set out to “reclaim” the German Empire, first by annexing formerly German land in Czechoslovakia, then by invading Austria, Poland, and Hungary. Jews who had fled to those countries were once again in jeopardy. By creating a common enemy in the Jews, Hitler gained the allegiance of many eastern Europeans. Meanwhile, there were secret soldiers undermining the Nazis from within. Many so-called Aryans risked their lives to offer comfort and safe harbor to fugitive Jews. Others either through destructive acts or outright deception did their part to weaken the Nazis. Finally, good triumphed over evil and the nightmare came to an end.

Jiří Weil, a survivor of the Nazi’s surreal nightmare, pays tribute to the secret soldiers who risked life and limb to stop Hitler. Josef Materna exemplifies the internal resistance; Materna’s mother, with her warm buttered bread, represents the good people who kept starving Jews alive with illicit gifts of food; and Josef Roubicek with his child-like innocence reveals the cruelty of hate. Too many Jews were caught off guard and, like deer paralyzed by headlights, easily killed. Life With a Star celebrates the beauty of humanity which gave Josef and others like him the hope and courage necessary to survive.

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