Mendelssohn is on the Roof

Jiri Weil

translated from the Czech by Marie Winn
Daunt Books 2011 [1960]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Municipal official and SS candidate Julius Schlesinger has been sent to remove the statue of Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music, but he can't work out which of the statues that is. So his boss Krug goes to the Elite Guard of the SS, who after some dispute send someone to the Jewish Ghetto to find a learned Jew. But the Council of Elders gives them Dr Rabinovich, whose learning extends to the complexities of Torah interpretation, not the identification of secular musicians he doesn't even consider Jewish...

Eventually Krug's wife remembers that they have friends who know something about music and the statue is taken care of. In the fallout from all of that, however, Schlesinger is sent to the front and Antonin Becvar, one of the Czech workmen involved, is sent to Germany as a forced labourer, serving as a fireman while the bombs fall.

This is the bleakly comic strand of Mendelssohn is on the Roof, highlighting the banality of evil, its operation through ordinary and often incompetent bureaucratic processes and people. Above these loom the unnamed head of the Central Bureau, responsible for managing the transports to the death camps, and Reinhard Heydrich, Reich Protector and mastermind of genocide.

Other stories illustrate the compromises made by the victims in their attempts to survive. Dr Rabinovich manages a Jewish museum for the head of the Central Bureau. Richard Reisinger works first in the warehouse where the Gestapo collect the goods confiscated from their victims, then as one of the ghetto guards who herd their fellow prisoners onto the transports. And Frantisek Schönbaum designs the gallows for an impromptu execution, in which a dozen men are murdered on a whim.

Some of these people, and others, find ways to strike back against their oppressors. Meanwhile, a Jewish doctor in hospital, dying from a kind of locked-in syndrome, looks back over his earlier life and the pleasures of canoeing with his friend Jan; he worries about his nieces Adela and Greta, who he has entrusted to Jan's care and who are in hiding with a series of families.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof is as much a series of linked short stories as a novel. Rather than attempting to present a single vision of the Holocaust, Jiri Weil instead approaches it from a multitude of perspectives, exploring its complexity through a range of characters. The result may lack the power of the great Holocaust memoirs, focused on the experiences of a single individual, but finds its own way to do justice to its subject.

October 2012

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%T Mendelssohn is on the Roof
%A Weil, Jiri
%M Czech
%F Winn, Marie
%I Daunt Books
%D 2011 [1960]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781907970016
%P 273pp