15 April 2023
Did the Golem save Mendelssohn
from the Nazis in Prague?
Two of us have spent two or three days on a mid-week visit to Prague: the city of Good King Wenceslas and Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera and Václav Havel, the city of the Charles Bridge and Jan Hus, the city of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, and the city of the Golem, who is said to have saved Mendelssohn from the Nazis.
Prague is also a city of composers. This is where Mozart composed Don Giovanni, and Prague has associations too with Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Bohuslav Martinů, Jan Dismas Zelenka and Leoš Janáček. There are links too with Vivaldi and Beethoven.
Surprsingly, I could find no links with Mendelssohn in Prague. But the story of the Golem and Mendelssohn was first told in Mendelssohn is on the Roof, a novel by Jiří Weil, a Holocaust survivor who was instrumental in saving many of the synagogues in Prague after World War II.
Jiří Weil (1900-1959) was a Czech writer, literary critic, journalist and translator, is known for the novels Moscow–Border (1937) and Life with a Star (1949). After World War II and the Holocaust, he worked at the Jewish Museum until 1958, when he retired on disability. He died of leukemia a year later.
His novel Mendelssohn is on the Roof was published posthumously in 1960. It is set in occupied Prague and the Terezín ghetto during World War II, and its main themes are the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie, who is writing in this weekend’s Church Times, told The story of Mendelssohn and the Golem once again in his recent book, Priests de la Résistance! (London: Oneworld, 2021), a humorous but pungent account of ‘the loose canons who fought fascism in the 20th century.’
During the Nazi occupation of Prague, the Gestapo director Reinhard Heydrich arrived in 1941 as ‘Protector’ of Bohemia and Moravia.
Prague is home to myriad opera houses, theatres and concert halls, including the Rudolfinum, a five-minute walk from where we were staying and where the roof is ringed by lare statues of the great composers.
Heydrich soon became aware that among the statues was one of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), who was born Jewish. Heydrich ordered the immediate removal and destruction of Mendelssohn’s stone statue. But the group of soldiers sent to the concert hall were met with stony silence from the tight-lipped curators, who declined to say which statue was Mendelssohn.
The frustrated soldiers found a measuring tape and, in a demonstration of the absurdity and futility of eugenics, proceeded to measure the nose of each of statue, seeking to establish which composer had ‘a Jewish nose.’ As they prepared to remove the statue, an onlooker shouted up that the figure they were removing was, in fact, Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer.
The real tragedy is that this story is based on a real-life event. In all, more than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and only 15,000 had survived by the end of World War II.
Did the Golem save Mendelssohn?
Perhps I should tell the story of the Golem some day next week.
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