Schwarz-Bart. Andre. “The Last of the Just”, Overlook Books reprint, 2000.
“Where Was God?”
Jewish tradition tells us that 36 “just men” are born in every generation to take the burden of the world’s suffering upon themselves. This is the story of two Jews, divided by eight centuries, who are persecuted to death, becoming part of the catastrophic history of the Jewish people. They just might be the last of the just. The book was originally written in 1959 and was considered by many to be a powerful read as both a historical document and a compelling piece of fiction.
These 36 just or righteous men are known as the Lamed Vavs (using the numerical value of the Hebrew letters lamed and vav). There are the people who live among the Jews in every generation and who provide the merit on which the world depends. The tradition dates back to the 5th century Babylonian Talmud. It was elaborated by kabbalistic Jews in the 16th and 17th century and by Hasidic Jews in the 18th century: the Lamed Vavs are humble men and unnoticed as special by their fellow Jews. Yet in times of great peril, we are told here “a Lamed Vavnik makes a dramatic appearance, using his hidden powers to defeat the enemies of Israel”.
Author Andre Schwarz-Bart was born in France and lost most of the members of his family in the Holocaust. He questions whether any Lamed Vav has ever come to defeat the enemies of Israel and he keeps the idea that a Lamed Vav will be humble and unknown however the throws out the idea that he might be a savior. Rather, his role is to offer his martyrdom to God as a symbol of faith and of his people. Instead his role is to offer to God his own martyrdom for his faith and for his people.
We meet the Levys, a family in which the Just Man is hereditary. Schwarz-Bart imagines the story of the Levys, one family in which the role of the Just Man was hereditary. They have suffered through the ages, beginning with the massacre of the Jews of York in 1185. In later generations this wandering Jewish family suffered at the Inquisitions; they were expelled from one area after another; the Cossacks mistreated them; and in the late 19th century, the family left its home in Zemyock in Russian Poland and settled in Germany. At this time there are three generations: At the head of one is Mordecai, the patriarch who accepts suffering as part of God’s will and tells his family that there is no point in putting up any resistance. His son Benjamin thinks there is an escape in trying to assimilate into German society; but the Patriarch tells the story of the Just Men to his frail and scholarly little grandson, Ernie. Ernie lives in his own intensely active and romantic imagination, and, with the arrival of the Nazis in 1933, he is convinced that he is to be the next Just Man.
From this point forward is the story of Ernie’s life. We read of horrible brutality, of Nazis attacking Jews as they move toward their synagogues, of Jewish children being bullied by teachers as well as by other students. Ernie lives a life of suffering and this makes his conviction that he is a just man. His imagination is vivid and we get looks at it as it alternates with terrible scenes of destruction and pain. Ernie is desperate and he identifies with suffering everywhere and not just for the Jews. He manages to see beauty even when there are horrors everywhere.
The Levys managed to escape Nazism by moving to France and were trapped there when the war broke out. Ernie volunteered for the French army and became a stretcher-bearer. He shares the horrors of war with us but does not go into great detail. Instead the descriptions we get are brief and ironic. With the defeat of the French army, Ernie goes to Vichy France and he fights to survive. He converts to Catholicism, begins to attend mass, has wild sex and his Jewish appearance begins to fade away. Hr both sees himself as a dog and behaves like one. However he is recognized as a Jew and at the same moment, he returns to his Jewish identity.
Ernie returns to the Jewish quarter of Paris and there he finds four devout old men from Zemyock who are awaiting deportation. Mordecai had told one of the men that he believed that his grandson was a lamed vavnik. This causes Ernie to be treated with reverence and this reminds him of his destiny. Nonetheless, he is driven to find a way to enter Auschwitz and extinction. There is a point when Ernie’s compassion makes him tell children who are being taken to extinction that they will soon “be in the Kingdom where ‘an eternal joy will crown your heads; cheerfulness and gaiety will come and greet you, and all the pains and all the moans will run away’.” When a woman tells him that he should not lie to the children, Ernie explains that there is no place for truth here and that truth will be found in the next world.
Here is a book that transcends every other book I have read, a book of such beauty and quality that there are no words to describe it properly. I remember when I first read it as a teen and how it totally changed me as a high school student. Reading it again this weekend was another shattering experience. It is totally human and totally surreal, a work of supreme beauty that is painfully poetic and rewardingly warm and tender.
Its context is myth—the idea that God will allow the world to continue as long as thirty-six just men take on its suffering. Among this number there are the unknown just men who do not the world as we do.
Ernie Levy is one of those men. A thousand years of history, two thousand years of suffering are all concentrated in the story of one boy, the movement of a family from Poland, to Germany, to France, to extermination. It’s all so simple. It’s all so wonderfully told. The story of a people, the story of a family, the story of a man, the story of the twentieth century, all in so few pages.
This is a book that is difficult to describe and impossible to forget. We are literally thrown into the world of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’. The story of a young Jewish boy – the ‘last of the Just’ – is so powerful, so full of pain and confusion, so beautifully written, so honestly realized, that the reader will never be able to forget it. In the last section where all of the names of the death camps are listed, we find one of the most moving pieces of literature ever written.