When I was a tour guide, I heard a story about Reinhard Heydrich and the statue of Felix Mendelssohn, the Jewish composer who stood on top of the Rudolfinum in Prague. It’s quite a humorous story that is told by many guides in the city.
It’s a funny story attributed to the Rudolfinum, which is the beautiful concert hall, home to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. The problem is, it isn’t a true story, nor is it a proper telling of it. The story comes from Jewish author Jiří Weil in his book Mendelssohn Is On The Roof. The book took 15 years to write, and was first published in Czech in 1960, then published in English in 1991. Mendelssohn Is On The Roof is a collection of scenes, rather than a complete narrative, which seeks to describe the corruption of the Nazi regime from the point of view of ordinary Czechs, including Jewish inhabitants of Prague, and even Reinhard Heydrich.
This particular story, which is told by so many guides in Prague, can be found in the first chapter of the book. The entire book is worth the read, and can be bought on Amazon. I took the liberty to type up the first chapter so that people can read the real story as written by Weil:
Antonin Becvar and Josef Stankovsky were on the roof, walking around the statues. It wasn’t a dangerous job– the statues were on a balustrade and the roof was relatively flat. Julius Schlesinger, a Municipal official and a candidate for the SS– not even for the Elite Guard, but just the plain, ordinary SS– was afraid to go out on the roof. Had he had a higher rank, he wouldn’t have had to waste time like this here. He might have found more lucrative work with the Gestapo. Still, a job at Municipal was more comfortable. Anyway, how far could he advance as a former locksmith? Unless they sent him to the front, out there in the East, and that would be a bad thing. Until this moment he had been doing pretty well in the Municipal division. But now things were beginning to go wrong.
He didn’t want to go out on the roof. Secretly the workmen made fun of him: What a coward! Afraid of climbing up, only shouting orders from the little gate. Of course, you’ve got to be careful with Germans. They’be arrested so many people, or sent them to the Reich for no reason at all, maybe just for not following an order quickly enough.
Schlesinger spoke Czech. He was from Most, where Czech was spoken, and for a time he had worked at the Ringhoffer plant. He had received his commission even before the occupation. He had assumed he’d be better rewarded for his services: why, he’d even had to pretend to be a German Social Democrat in order to get along with the workers. That’s how far he was willing to go for the cause.But in spite of everything, they had only made him a Municipal official and a candidate for the SS. It was all because of his name. If only he’d been called Dvorzacek or Nemetschek. That would have been fine. Hundreds of people have names like those and nothing stands in their way. But Schlesinger, and to top it all off, Julius Schlesinger. It sounded like a Jewish name and created doubt everywhere. He always carried his Aryan papers with him, papers going back to his great-great-grandmother. But that seemed a bit suspicious, too, for documents can be falsified. Hadn’t he himself been given fake documents by the political boss in Most for the Ringhoffer job?
But nobody could make him go out on the roof. He was afraid of heights and he was afraid of the wrath of God, because as a devout Catholic he had committed a terrible desecration and he knew he shouldn’t have done it. Perhaps he could have avoided it. He could have dreamed up some illness. But that probably wouldn’t have helped either, for they would have sent him to the front. Possibly to the penal colony. The order for removing the physical remains of the Unknown Soldier had come directly from Frank. Krug had Expressly told him so, and Krug had gotten the order himself from Giesse. So there was nothing left for Schlesinger to do but obey. Besides which, he was a former locksmith. Who was better suited at the task than himself?
This business on the roof was about something else. He it was a matter of a statue, a Jewish statue. Knocking down a statue of a Jew and, on top of everything, a musical composer, so no sin. A statue can’t file a complaint before the heavenly throne. Though who knows the ways of God; even a statue can bring forth divine retribution he had once seen an opera about it. But could a statue do it in broad daylight? These are strange times, no rules apply, day can turn into night. For such a grievous sin as his there is no mercy. Who could forgive him the pliers, the screwdrivers, the metal cutters, the hacksaw? There is no absolution for such a sin, except maybe a pilgrimage to Rome, like in the old days, to be g forgiveness directly from the Pope. What would his superiors say to that, that wretch Krug, or fat Dr. Buch, who was in cahoots with the Gestapo. Schlesinger had actually been forced to sign a declaration that he’d never reveal anything about it to anybody under penalty of death., not even to his own family. If he were to confess to his priest, the priest might denounce him– after all, the Gestapo had its agents even among priests. But its power didn’t extend to the Pope. The question was how to get to the Pope. Maybe he’d find some pretext. Just so he didn’t face his judgment before receiving absolution. Then nothing could help him. He’d have to fry in hell for eternity.
The workmen trudged around the balcony listlessly, dragging a thick rope with a noose behind them. There were many statues out here, each one representing a composer. They looked down at the street. Empty. Of course, it’s a weekday. Everybody’s at work. The universities are closed. Once in a while someone slips into the Museum of Industrial Design. People don’t like to walk around here with the SS barracks and the Jewish Bureau nearby. This is the SS zone. What a stupid job this is, walking around on the roof with a rope looking for a statue. Only the Krauts with that efficiency of theirs could think up something like this. And who knows if two people alone can manage such a big statue. Schlesinger doesn’t want to bring in more people either. He wants to keep it quiet, so he made the workmen swear secrecy. How stupid, as if people wouldn’t notice that a statue is missing. But who can reason with these new bosses. How long do they have to stand around on this stupid roof? Why doesn’t Schlesinger come out from behind that gate and tell them what’s going on?
“Well, Boss, we’re all set, so tell us which statue. Just point to it.” Becvar couldn’t stand it any longer.
Schlesinger disliked the word “boss.” These people didn’t even know how to address their superiors. Nobody had ever taught them discipline. Nobody had ever made them go to military drills the way he had had to go. They were just interested in the black market and planting vegetables in their garden plots.
“Walk around the balustrade and look at the plaques until you find the name Mendelssohn. You can read, can’t you?” he snapped at them.
“What’s that Jew’s name?” asked Stankovsky. He held on to his official cap so that it didn’t fly away in the wind. He set great store by his cap as a sign of his rank. It had counted for a lot under the Republic. A Municipal worker wasn’t any old body, but a city employee, with a pension plan. Except that with those Germans one never knew. Still, a cap was a cap.
“Men-dels-sohn,” Schlesinger said, syllable by syllable.
“Yeah, sure,” said Becvar.
They walked around the balustrade slowly, looking at the pedestals. They knew perfectly well there were no plaques there, but if Schlesinger wanted them to walk around, why shouldn’t they oblige him.
“There are no plaques on the pedestals, Boss,” Becvar declared. “How are we supposed to tell which one is Mendelssohn?”
This was a pretty mess. Nobody had ever told him what the statue of that Jew looked like. And even if they had told him, it wouldn’t have done any good. These statues all looked alike. He had counted on there being plaques. Such statues usually have plaques. Yet he couldn’t and mustn’t ask anyone. Probably only the Acting Reich Protector would know that Mendelssohn’s statue looked like. Frank wouldn’t know, or Giesse, or Krug. Heydrich would know, because he was a musician. But who would dare ask him?
Schlesinger peered out from the gate and looked at the statues, his mind racing. Even if he forced himself to go out on the roof, he wouldn’t be able to tell one statue from the other any better than the workmen. They were standing at ease, waiting for his orders. They were probably laughing at him, but they didn’t show any signs of it. Their faces were blank, expressionless. They were probably thinking, So what if we have to wait, we’re not in any hurry. Meanwhile, he, Schlesinger, had to carry out the order. It came directly from the Acting Reich Protector and he was even more ruthless than Frank. To disobey an order–everybody knew what that meant. Krug had explained it to him at the time as they were setting out for the Old Town Square Town Hall: that rule apply just as firmly in the hinterland as they do at the front. The front is everywhere, especially in this country, where their task is to lay down the law for the lowly subjects of the Reich. Military law counts in this country above all. To disobey an order means death. Even if the order is unintelligible.
“Yeah, sure,” said Becvar.
“The rope’s not all that strong, it could break on us. We should really test it, but no, everybody’s always in such a big hurry,” grumbled Stankovsky. And he wanted to add, “And now we’re wasting time here for no good reason,” but he thought better of it. Schlesinger was steamed up about something. Those Krauts were all crazy. Pretty soon it would be noon. If they didn’t get this finished soon, they’d miss lunch in the mess hall.
Finally Schlesinger had an idea. “Go around the statues again and look carefully at their noses. Whichever one has the biggest nose, that’s the Jew.”
Schlesinger was taking a course called World View, where they gave lectures on “racial science” and showed slides. The slides showed a lot of noses, with measurements next to them. Every nose had been carefully measured. It was a very deep and complicated science, but its findings were simple. The upshot was that the biggest noses belonged to the Jews. The workers walked around the statues. How idiotic to make them look for the statue with the biggest nose. Becvar pulled out a folding wooden ruler he always carried with him. He had studied carpentry before he started working for Municipal. New he built rabbit hutches after work. He made a good living out of it. People were fighting to get them– rabbits were in fashion.
“Don’t be stupid.” Stankovsky shoved him aside. “We’re not going to waste time measuring. Seriously now, we could miss lunch. Come on, we can tell just by looking which one has the biggest nose.”
“Look,” yelled Becvar, “that one over there with the beret, none of the others has a nose like him. So I’m going to put the rope around his neck, what do you say?”
“Great,” Stankovsky agreed. Let’s go.” He began to pull at the rope, and the statue was already beginning to wobble. Schlesinger was peeking out through the gate.
“Jesus Christ! Stop! I’m telling you, stop!”
Becvar and Stankovsky let the rope drop from their hands. That Kraut was carrying on again. Why didn’t he look and see for himself which one had the biggest nose? Why didn’t he come out from behind that gate?
Schlesinger was sweating with terror. He didn’t recognize any of those statues except for this very one. My God, it was Wagner, the greatest German composer; not just an ordinary musician, but one of the greats who had helped build the Third Reich. His portraits and plaster casts hung in every household, and they also lectured about him in those courses. The workers dropped the rope in confusion. The noose was swayed around the neck of Richard Wagner.
Schlesinger thought hard. Then he asked, “did that statue really have the biggest nose?”
“You bet, Boss,” said Becvar. The other noses were just regular.”
“Pack up your tools,” ordered Schlessinger. “We’re going to the Town Hall.”
Becvar and Stankovsky removed the noose from Wagner’s neck and slowly walked to the gate.
Schlesinger didn’t look at them. He climbed down the stairs. So the statue had come to deliver judgement on him after all. Not like in the opera, but still, there it was, revenge carried out by a statue. And in broad daylight, what’s more.
The time he had committed the mortal sin it had been night. They had arrived by car at ten o’clock and stopped in front of the Old Town Square Town Hall. There were two Gestapo officers in the car. He had brought the pliers, the screwdriver, the file, the metal cutters, the metal saw. The car drove into the courtyard and they entered the Town Hall by the back door. Krug was waiting for them there. The two Gestapo men were laughing– obviously drunk. But they were relatively quiet about it. They were able to control themselves even when drunk, while he staggered among them with his tools as if he were drunk, too, though he hadn’t touched a drop or eaten a bite from the moment Krug had called him in. Krug had told him about the job awaiting him and made him sign the declaration.
They went down into the chapel. The Gestapo men hurried him along, constantly hissing, “Los, los, schnell, schnell.” The words seemed automatic. First they took the ribbons off the wreaths. They didn’t need him for that, they could manage that themselves. They had boxes all ready. They scowled as they worked and in the dimly illuminated crypt they looked like devils. Yes, devils without names, merely emitting words as if from a phonograph loudspeaker as they stood at his right and left.
And then his work began. He unscrewed the lid of the coffin, stripping the decorations off it and then cutting the coffin up with shears, tearing the metal into several strips. He worked mechanically. Finally he pulled out a wooden crate which held the bones of the Unknown Soldier, and some earth. He carried all that from the crypt to the car. The Gestapo men didn’t help him. Krug was waiting for him in the courtyard. He looked at his watch, which had an illuminated dial, the kind they give officers at the front. He said, “It’s two o’clock. Good, quick work. I’ll recommend you for an Iron Cross, second degree. I’ll send a report to the mayor, Mr. Pfitzner.”
Schlesinger didn’t answer, but trudged along with his load. Let them think he was tired. Let them think whatever they wanted. The Gestapo men climbed in the car and sat there without a word. They sat him between them in the back seat and set the load on the front seat next to the driver. Then they drove through the dead, dark city. They crossed the bridge to the other side of the river. Only the river was alive. Only the river was visible in the darkness– you could see its shimmer in the midst of the dark emptiness.
He couldn’t figure out where they were going. First he thought they’d go straight to Bredovska, where the Gestapo would receive the remains. But the black limousine was racing along, going somewhere terribly far away. He mumbled prayers under his breath. The Gestapo men were asleep. They crossed yet another bridge. Now Schlesinger recognized where they were– in Rokoska. Could they be taking their cargo all the way to the Reich on the Rumburk Highway? Or might they be going to Penenske Brezany, where Heydrich himself could check the contents of the wooden box? No, they turned off to the left and drove along the Trojsky embankment. The driver was obviously following instructions.
Then the car stopped, right by the river. The Gestapo men woke up and stumbled out of the car along with Schlesinger. The driver pulled a big bag from under his seat. The Gestapo men began to gather stones and quietly gestured to him to do the same. Everything was happening quietly, by the blue light of a few shrouded flashlights. They stuffed the wooden box, together with the metal and the stones, into the bag. Then they gave it a few swings and heaved it into the water. Only now did one of the Gestapo men speak.
They dropped him off at the same place they had started from, the Old Town Square, near his apartment in a new house on Dlouha Street. And so ended the night of his mortal sin. Now the ghost was having its revenge. The statue of the Jewish musician was coming to punish him for helping remove the earthly remains of the Unknown Soldier. He had been living in fear from that night on, constantly reminding himself of his terrible crime, the dishonoring and desecration of the dead. But what else could he have done? How could he have gotten out of it when Krug had threatened him and those two Gestapo men were guarding his every step?
Disobeying an order means death– that’s what Krug had said that time. And as long as
there was a war on, it still held true, and maybe even after the war.
There was no use tormenting himself with recriminations. Without a word he handed the roof keys to the guard, who didn’t ask any questions. He wouldn’t have dared.
Schlesinger went out into the street. The workmen didn’t dare walk next to him, but glued themselves to his heels, as if they were rejoicing at his bad luck, as if they wanted to wait and see him carried off in the black car to Bredovska.
“What do you want?” he snapped at them.
“Oh nothing, Boss,” Becvar began mildly. “We just sort of wanted to go to lunch, if nothing is happening with that statue. We’ll be right back after lunch, for sure, just in case something else happens with that statue.”
“Get out!” shouted Schlesinger. “When I need you I’ll find you. At lunch, if need be.”
The workers went into the lunchroom and Schlesinger walked through the door of the Town Hall.
“Yeah, sure,” said Becvar.
“That crazy Kraut, and there’s potatoes and gravy again for lunch.” Stankovsky sighed.
Schlesinger didn’t even ask if Krug was in his office.
Krug sat at the desk without getting up. He only growled a greeting of sorts. Schlesinger could tell from his face that something was wrong. Krug was sly. Nothing got by him. He knew everything.
“So, has the order been carried out?” Krug asked severely. “Giesse has already been asking.”
“No,” answered Schlesinger softly.
“What do you mean, no?” Krug screamed. “Couldn’t those two idiots even manage a dumb job like that? I’m going to have their heads. They stuff their bellies here in the Protectorate but they can’t knock down an ordinary statue. You should have helped them, Schlesinger, or forced them to do it. This is criminal neglect. There’s no other course for you but to work for Iron Cross at the front.”
Shlesinger stood at attention, shaking. With an effort he stuttered out, “Those statues have no identifying names. I couldn’t tell which one was the Jew.”
Krug barked an obscenity at him. And then he fell silent. They were both silent, Schlesinger with his hands nicely at his hips at attention and Krug at his desk with one leg crossed over the other.
Jesus Christ, dear mother of God, maybe it won’t turn out so badly, since Krug hasn’t had him sent away immediately. He could simply have dialed a number, given the order, and they would have been here in a minute. But Krug is silent. He’s in trouble, too. Of course, he’s responsible to Giesse, and Giesse to Frank, and Frank to Heydrich, and if the order isn’t carried out, Heydrich and Frank will have them all arrested. Well, maybe not Giesse, he’d just get some punishment and stay at liberty, because Heydrich needs Giesse. But Krug would certainly get it. His prewar good deeds won’t help him now, or his activities in the Polish campaign.
Finally Krug said mildly, “The order must be carried out. The General won’t sand for any excuses.” (He purposely used Heydrich’s military title, to emphasize the meaning of the order.” “So what do you propose we do now?”
Schlesinger’s head was whirling. He had to think up something fast, to gain time. But he couldn’t come up with anything. To ask Giesse, the next time he telephoned? That meant admitting that the order hadn’t been carried out. And besides, Giesse wouldn’t know what the statue looked like anyway. Only Heydrich would know that. In a minute Krug would start screaming again. He was scared, too, and he’d want to save himself at any cost. The telephone was on the table in front of him. In one more minute he’d pick the receiver.
“I think,” Schlesinger suggested, “that we should ask for help at the SS barracks. They’re near the concert hall. They’ll be able to find an expert there. We’ve got our order directly from the Acting Reich Protector, so they’ll have to help us.”
Krug thought it over: Schlesinger was an idiot, but this wasn’t such a bad idea. It might be easier to turn to Gestapo. They had experts on everything there. You could even find musicians. On the other hand, it was always dangerous to get tangled up with the Gestapo. They’d send a report to the Protectorate, and even before the statue went down, Heydrich would hear that Krug had screwed up. And then Krug would never escape punishment, because Heydrich knew no mercy. At the SS, however, they wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. They were used to carrying out orders without making asking any questions. They wouldn’t ask at the Protectorate. It would be enough for them to hear that Krug was a Scharführer and Schlesinger an Anwarter.
“Try it, then,” he said graciously, “and send me a report.”
The telephone rang. Giesse, thought Schlesinger.
Krug answered, “Not yet, but definitely today. A small delay, technical problems…yes, I understand, an order from the highest level… it will be carried out… you can rely on me.”
Krug hung up and angrily snapped at Schlesinger, “Get going, and don’t let me see you again until that statue is gone. Do you understand?”
Schlesinger clicked his heels and left with the required salute. Krug didn’t bother to understand.