The novel begins in Nazi-occupied Prague, soon after the invasion of Russia. There are the nine months when "the Butcher of Prague", Reinhardt Heydrich, as Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, ruled with naked terror. He saw Bohemia as an ancient German land, had utter contempt for the Czechs and was one of the main architects of the "Final Solution": the Jews were already herded into ghettoes; Theresienstadt had already been turned into a holding area from which many Jews were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Weil has Heydrich regret that in his present position he could only organize the liquidation of the Jews instead of being able, as before, to participate personally in the violence. After Heydrich was assassinated, the terror intensified even more.
The book portrays the brutality and bureaucracy of the regime; the infighting within the different Nazi authorities; how the Nazis terrify each other almost as much as they terrify the people of Prague, as when an order given by Heydrich could not be immediately carried out. One of these orders had been to remove the statue of Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music when none of his underlings knew which of the many statues was that of Mendelssohn. Such situations are farcical; but we are left in no doubt that there was never anything funny in the outcome, as we follow the precarious lives of several Jews and Czechs. Many have perforce to collaborate with the Germans and even take some pride in it; others reproach themselves bitterly; a few courageously engage in resistance. As the book progresses, it becomes darker and darker as the farcical elements are left behind. We move to Theresienstadt, where the Germans forced Jews to select other Jews to do terrible things to yet other Jews. And the suffering, there and in Prague, continues right up to the time, in the last pages, when the Soviets drive the Germans out of Czechoslovakia. Some of the Nazis' victims had gone to their deaths bravely, knowing that, though they would not live to see it, the Germans would surely be defeated.
Weil wrote not only as a Jew, but also as a lover of Czechoslovakia.