I want to consider two novels and two autobiographical works about the Holocaust. All four are powerful pieces of writing, though I have only been able to read them in translation.

The two novels are by Jiri Weil, who was born in Prague in 1900, Life with a Star and Mendelssohn is on the Roof. Both are based on his own experiences as a Jew who managed to escape transportation to the death camps and from 1942 onwards lived in hiding. More than any other fiction I have read Life with a Star takes you inside the mind of a Jew trying to survive the horror that engulfs him. Josef, its protagonist, seeks ways in which he can avoid the notice of the authorities, and sees his personal survival as an act of defiance and resistance. Its impact is all the greater for the humanity and, in places, humour, in which the story is told.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof has a strange topicality, as it is about the toppling of a statue. When Heydrich, the Nazi who is ruler of conquered Czechoslovakia, notices a statue of the Jewish composer Mendelssohn on the roof of the Prague Academy of Music, he orders its immediate removal. There are statues of several composers but none are named, and those tasked with removing Mendelssohn’s can’t tell which one it is. There are some darkly comic scenes as attempts are made to identify and remove it before Heydrich returns.

The humour is soon overtaken by a series of brutal acts including a number of executions performed for visiting SS officers. The condemned men are determined to die with honour. Weil writes, “ the dignitaries were no longer enjoying themselves...the show was not as amusing as they had expected - nobody begged for mercy, and each one repeated the phrase the first one had called out “You’ll never win the war!” As in Life with a Star, it is through acts of defiance and subversion that the victims assert hope and humanity. These two novels deserve to be much better known.

You may well have read Primo Levi’s If this is a Man and The Truce. The first book describes his capture in Italy in 1943 and journey to Auschwitz, where he was put in the work camp, rather than sent to the gas chamber. The conditions in the prison were barely tolerable, and made worse by the daily indignities the captive had to suffer. It was a constant battle not to give in and to retain some human feeling.

When, about a year later, the Russians approach Auschwitz, the German guards flee with most of the prisoners. Levi only survives because he was abandoned in the sick bay at the time.

His second volume, The Truce recounts his long, arduous journey back home to Italy.

I should like to close with a short passage from The Truce. The Russians have just reached the camp and Levi describes his feelings at the moment of liberation: “...for us the hour of liberty ...filled our souls with joy, and yet with a painful sense of shame, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt this should never happen, and that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and the scars of outrage that would remain with us for ever, and in the memories of those who saw it, and in the places where it occurred and in the stories that we should tell of it”.

Primo Levi’s and Jiri Weil’s ‘stories’ describe the experience of the Holocaust more sharply and more intimately than any of the histories I have read.

Lance Christopher

PS Books can be bought as paper copies, or as eBooks via Kindle, and can also be borrowed digitally, and, once the Coronavirus lockdown has passed, as print copies from Wiltshire libraries. You need a library card and an email address so that you can register with RBdigital. If you don’t already have a library card, you can join online by completing a form and then receiving an email with your library card number.

More information about this service and a link to the joining form can be found at http ://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/libraries-ebooks