University professor Josef Held has never recovered from the loss of his beloved wife – and has no intention of ever letting anyone new into his quiet, safe world. It is a world where the clock ticks steadily in his mathematics classroom, even as the sinister beat of Nazi soldiers’ boots threaten to drown it out.
Terrified, Josef tries to keep his eyes on the ground as Jews across the city are forced into ghettos. But then Michael Blum, his most reluctant, infuriating pupil, tells Josef Jews like him will no longer be allowed to study at all. Josef can ignore the situation no longer. And, after the shock of seeing his neighbor killed on his own doorstep, he offers Michael a place to hide in an impulsive act of courage.
Michael is everything Josef is not: spontaneous, poetic, and unafraid to love. Even though his passionate relationship with a Dutch girl is strictly forbidden – for he is Jewish, and she is not. Somehow, in the quiet gloom of the attic, Josef doesn’t mind things about Michael that annoyed him in the classroom, and a bond begins to grow.
Remembering the pain of his own heartbreak, Josef is desperate to give Michael and his girlfriend a chance. He must go on as if nothing has changed: teaching his class, bowing to the Nazis. Beneath the fear, a thrill of defiance begins to bloom. But then Michael becomes perilously ill, and there is no way to get him the help he desperately needs.
As the dark days of war continue, with danger and betrayal at every turn, no-one can be trusted. If Michael is to survive and get back to the woman he loves, it will be down to Josef – to find the hero inside himself, and do whatever it takes to keep Michael alive. Even if it means putting his own life on the line.
By 1941, three things are happening in Professor Joseph Held’s world: 1) he is twenty years in to mourning the loss of his beloved wife; 2) the Nazi’s have occupied his town of Amsterdam and; 3) he is harboring a young Jewish student in his attic. All three things have the potential to end more than one good man’s life.
As a professor of mathematics, Joseph Held has always found solace in his number, formulas, equations, and algorithms. Math never changes, math never dies, and the knowledge of math can change the way one sees the world. What math cannot do is bring back Professor Held’s wife, force the Nazi’s to cease their madness, nor save the life of the young man hiding in the professor’s attic. For so many years, Professor Held has found comfort and solace in his numbers, his routine, and his loneliness, but with the coming of Hitler and the Nazi occupation, all the professor’s comfort and solace have been brutally taken away.
While Professor Held has never considered himself a particularly brave or courageous man, he has always seen himself as honorable and protecting his young student is simply the right thing to do. The professor’s attic is never used and hardly remembered by anyone who has been to his home which makes it the perfect place to hide. As the years of the war and the occupation stretch on, Professor Held and his fugitive learn of one anothers’ lives, hopes and dreams, of the frustrations and losses they have both experienced, and the toll the interminable war has taken on them. There is never a moment not filled with fear, anguish, paranoia, and anxiety, but some of those moments are eclipsed by small bits of happiness and hope. As it turns out, an aging, lonely mathematics professor can learn to live again and a young, seemingly hopeless Jew can help pave the way in even the darkest of times.
The Bottom Line: I always feel icky saying “I loved this book” when the book focuses on such a desperate and barbarous time of human history. A View Across the Rooftops is another version of a very well-known story and one that is crafted beautifully. While many books in this genre tend to focus on the atrocities of the concentration camps, A View Across the Rooftops focuses on the lives of just a small number of people, a very courageous city, and a spirit that was not to be broken no matter how bleak the situation. While there are no truly graphic scenes in this book, the hardship, the loss, the desolation is certainly still conveyed and felt. One of the strengths of this book and how I feel it best conveyed not only the sadness and desperation of the situation, but also the fierce determination and resilience of the people involved is in how many years the book spans. A View Across the Rooftops spans almost the entire length of the war though the story moves quickly enough that you don’t feel like you’ve spent four plus years reading. In fact, the story moves at quite a good pace and that has to do primarily with the quality of the characters, the quality of the writing, and the overwhelming sense of tension and anxiety. You can’t stop reading for fear all will be found out and lost on the very next page. Amid all the awful, there is also a very real sense of hope – a feeling that despite all the city and her people have been through, there is still strength and love and hope. Those ideals are felt most strongly in the characters of Professor Held and his student; to follow their journey through so many days, months, and years is at times crippling and, at others, positively uplifting. While on the one hand I felt utter abhorrence at man’s treatment of man, I also come away with a renewed faith in humanity and our ability to overcome, to forgive, to help, to care, and to simply be courageous in the face of great fear and imminent danger. This is storytelling at its finest and for those who tend to be drawn to this time period, you will not be disappointed.