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Weil, Jiří

(1900–1959), Czech novelist and short-story writer. Jiří Weil was born in the village of Praskolesy, near Prague; after World War I, when his father’s frame shop failed, the family moved to Prague, where Weil went to high school and university. Weil soon became involved in the political and cultural left; in 1922 he visited the Soviet Union, and on his return he took a job in the press department of the Soviet mission in Prague. In the 1920s he translated extensively from Russian literature, joined the avant-garde grouping Devětsil, and completed a Ph.D. in Slavic philology, with a dissertation on Gogol and the eighteenth-century English novel.

In mid-1933 Weil moved to Moscow to work as a translator for a Soviet publishing house; in 1935, apparently in part because of a personal letter in which he complained of living conditions in Moscow, he was expelled from the party and sent to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan for six months of reeducation. On his return to Prague, he published his first novel, Moskva-hranice (Moscow to the Border; 1937), which unforgettably captures the daily pathos and excitement of the Soviet project of “building socialism,” as well as the self-righteous cruelty, political infighting, and pathetic abjection of the party purges, to which the protagonist Jan Fischer falls prey. Although Weil belonged to the left-wing cultural organization U-Blok, Communist critics subjected the novel to such scathing criticism that he decided not to publish its sequel, Dřevěná lžíce (The Wooden Spoon), which follows Fischer on his exile from Moscow to a copper mine in Kazakhstan; it was not published until 1992.

Weil survived the Nazi occupation of Prague by faking his own suicide and going into hiding. During the war he wrote the short stories Barvy (Colors; 1946) and the novel Makanna—otec divu (Makanna, Father of Miracles; 1946), about an eighth-century false prophet in Central Asia, which won a state literary prize. His next novel, Život s hvězdou (Life with a Star; 1949), was one of the first Czech novels to deal with the Holocaust. Its antihero is a nondescript Jewish bank clerk who ekes out an existence in occupied Prague before deciding to go into hiding. This novel failed to meet the literary dictates of the new Communist government: Weil was labeled “cowardly,” “defeatist,” and—with clear antisemitic undertones—“cosmopolitan,” and was expelled from the Czechoslovak Writers Union from 1951 to 1956.

The harsh criticism Weil received throughout his life reflected his originality and his refusal to fit into received categories; during the 1950s he remained a literary outsider. He found a measure of refuge working for the State Jewish Museum from 1950 to 1958, and his writings during this period reflect an ever-deepening interest in Jewish themes and history. He helped organize an exhibition of drawings made by children in Terezín; later, he published Žalozpěv za 77 297 obětí (Lamentation for 77,297 Victims; 1958), a montage of scriptural passages and brief scenes from the Holocaust, and the novel Harfeník (The Harpist; 1958), about Prague Jews in the early nineteenth century. The stories in Chillonský vězeň (Prisoner of Chillon; 1957) range over his Soviet experiences, the Holocaust, and postwar Western Europe. He died of leukemia in 1959, shortly before the publication of Na střeše je Mendelssohn (Mendelsohn is on the Roof; 1960), a set of interlocking tales about wartime Prague and Terezín.

Suggested Reading

Růžena Grebeníčková, Literatura a fiktivní světy, ed. Michael Špirit, vol. 1 (Prague, 1995); Jan Grossman, Analýzy, ed. Jiří Holý and Terezie Pokorná (Prague, 1991); Jiří Holý, “Komentář,” in Život s hvězdou, Na střeše je Mendelssohn, Žalozpěv za 77 297 obětí, by Jiří Weil, ed. Jarmila Víšková (Prague, 1999); Jindřich Toman, “Jiří Weil,” in Holocaust Novelists (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 299), ed. Efraim Sicher (Detroit, 2004).