TO WRITE A NOVEL that makes you laugh is a great skill; to write a novel that takes place in a ghetto and still makes you laugh is a true feat. Jiří Robert Pick’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does that and more. On the one hand, it is a paean to the human character, which fights for survival and dignity in the face of certain death. On the other, it is the tender and surprisingly funny story of one boy in extraordinary circumstances.

Published in 1969, Pick’s novel begins in 1939, when its hero, Tony, is eight years old. Three years later, he and his mother Liza are transferred to the ghetto of Terezín, located in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, which served as a transit camp for Czech Jews who would eventually be sent to Treblinka and Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland. The book is structured into 11 short chapters, each filled with bittersweet observations about life, death, love, and the miracle of survival in such terrifying times.

At the heart of the story is Tony’s plan to found a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The notion, along with Tony’s other good intentions, allows Pick to make cheeky and often shocking comments on life in the ghetto. Tony finds this life deathly dull. He spends his days catching flies and fleas, surrounded by older men with tuberculosis. The men entertain themselves by singing Czech songs. Tony, in all his innocence, suggests a song entitled “Broken-Down Oven,” much to the consternation of Mr. Abeles, who says, “I’m not sure this is the right time for that one.” One of the other men notices Tony’s gentle treatment of flies and asks whether he is a member of the society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, an organization “in nearly every capital of Europe.” The idea sparks Tony’s enthusiasm: “The ghetto wasn’t a capital, but it certainly was international.” And so the hunt for animals that need protection begins. Ernie, Tony’s older friend, suggests mice and rats.

Three days later, a group of adults, including Liza, decide to visit the local Catholic church in search of pigeons. Tony is curious about the painting of Jesus and the reason he was crucified. The adults offer an awkward explanation:

“Well, he was sort of a Jewish gadfly,” said Albie. “He kept saying things people didn’t like.”

“He decided he’d rather be crucified than take back what he said,” said Ernie.

“Like what?” said Tony.

“His beliefs,” said Ernie.

“Oh, I get it,” said Tony. “So he was kind of like Masaryk.”

“No, not at all,” said Albie. “Jesus was just an ordinary stubborn-headed Jew.”

“But he did convince all those other people,” Ernie said.

“Only because he got crucified, though,” Ledecký chimed in.

[Thomas Masaryk was the founder and first president of independent Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1935.] 

Much to Tony’s disappointment, no pigeons are found, and the adults suggest lice and fleas instead. (Albie lustfully lifts up the hem of Liza’s skirt in search of some specimen for Tony.) Eventually, the adults do come up with an animal for Tony to take care of: the SS-Sturmbannführer’s little ratter. “But first we’d have to ghettoize him,” suggests Ernie. Tony likes the idea, though he worries the SS-Sturmbannführer’s dog might be a bit spoiled; the only food Tony has to offer is powdered sugar.

The episode with the little dog introduces perhaps the most powerful moment in the book. Soon after the adults eagerly decide to kidnap the dog, they invite Tony for a small feast. His mother encourages him to take a bite, and Tony admits it tastes good: “But it didn’t necessarily mean anything. In the ghetto, almost everything tasted good.” After the adults make sure Tony is happy with the meal, they decide to disclose that it’s Fifi, the SS-Sturmbannführer’s dog. Tony is, of course, heartbroken and shocked that his friends have strangled the dog. But he is assured that the killing was more humane:

Nobody here would be stuffing their face with Fifi if we had strangled her. That would be sick. We stabbed her, in accordance with all the rules. Then we divided her up. Liza oversaw the whole thing. We got three servings each. You still have one left.

The feast on the dog is actually a farewell meal for Albie, who receives a summons for his transport to the extermination camp. Jenda, one of the ladies, even offers sex, but Albie refuses: “I don’t want to tire myself before the trip.”

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is not the only work of art to tackle the experience of the Holocaust in such extraordinary fashion, with a mix of laughter and tears. Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning film La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful) comes to mind. Laughter also serves as a defense against the unfolding tragedy in Bohumil Hrabal’s absurd novel Closely Watched Trains (1965, translated by Edith Pargeter in 1968), which was adapted into another Oscar-winning film by Jiří Menzel in 1966. Set in the closing weeks of World War II in Bohemia, it focuses on a young railwayman’s romantic frustrations as he dreamily observes German military trains passing by. In the midst of carnage and devastation, life and its obsessions, however petty, must go on.

Eventually, Tony is given an animal he can take care of: a mouse he names Helga. The mouse is a farewell present from Ledecký, because he and Jenda Schleim have been also summoned for the transport. This inescapable reality of these orders to leave reverberates throughout the novel. There is an unspoken understanding that certain types of illness can miraculously protect an individual and a whole family from the transports: “Jaundice or cancer didn’t offer any protection, but tuberculosis, diphtheria, and scarlet fever had all worked up until now.” Toward the end of the novel, Liza receives the dreaded summons and hands her son Tony a safety pin, so that he can prick himself and spit blood. She says:

This time it won’t even help if you’re wracked with cancer […] You could even be related to the King of England. The only thing that’ll work is if you can prove you’re so sick that you wouldn’t even make it alive to the Sudetenlands, where everyone boards the train.

Fearful he will not be able to prick himself to produce enough blood, Tony has a different idea. A portion of red jam should do the trick instead.

There is no way to cheat death. At times Pick’s novel is almost impossible to read. The naïveté of certain characters is unbearable:

He [Professor Steinbach] said the ghetto was just preparation for the journey to the promised land. Poland, where the transports were headed, was the transfer station. That was why he wasn’t afraid.

Later, the death of a young man who tries to escape and is shot by the Germans sparks a discussion about the way in which Germans kill Jews in the camps. Shooting is out of the question, “because the Germans would never waste ammunition like that.” Finally, one of the men logically suggests: “Surely, economics is more of a factor at this point. I’ve come to the conclusion that they drown the people in water. That’s the cheapest way.”

Jiří Robert Pick wrote from experience. He and his family arrived in Terezín in 1943. In the afterword to the book, his sister Zuzana Justman, a documentary filmmaker and writer, recalls how her brother became paralyzed after an attack of polio. He also contracted tuberculosis and remained in the hospital until the end of the war. Their father perished in Auschwitz, Zuzanna and their mother immigrated to Argentina, while Pick remained in Prague, where he continued writing scripts for film and theater. He died in 1983.

Recently, I had the chance to ask Alex Zucker, the translator behind this exquisite English version, about his approach to the unusual humor in the book. He responded:Of course I had a lot of back and forth with Zuzana about the particulars of life in Terezín, to make sure that I was translating all the terms correctly, and as far as the humor goes too, I depended on Zuzana a great deal as a reader to let me know if she thought I had missed a joke.”

In his informative afterword, the contemporary Czech author Jáchym Topol speaks about his own childhood memories of Pick and of later reading the novel: “a good book is a culmination of anxiety, not an escape from it. Why is it so important to be able to joke about the greatest horrors? So that we don’t choke to death on the blackness.” In Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, absurdity and black humor are the very tools of survival, a way through the nightmare. This powerful and moving book helps us make peace with, if not sense of, the unthinkable.

¤

A. M. Bakalar is the author of two novels, Madame Mephisto (2012) and Children of Our Age (2017).