Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Forgotten Novels: Last of the Just

It's a beautiful legend:

According to this teaching, at any given time there are at least 36 holy Jews in the world who are Tzadikim. These holy people are hidden, i.e., nobody knows who they are. According to some versions of the story, they themselves may not know who they are. For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the world even if the rest of humanity has degenerated to the level of total barbarism. 1
The Jewish French author of Last of the Just, Andre Schwarz-Bart, had joined the Resistance in 1941 after the deportation of his parents to Auschwitz by the Nazis. Having survived the war and seen the brutality of the Nazis up close, it's hardly surprising that in 1959 he chose to write a novel about a single humble Jew, one of the Just Men of the legend, and his life during the German occupation.

What is more surprising, and what gives the novel so much of its undoubted power, is that the Just Man - Ernie Levy - is far more of a sacrificial victim than a saviour, and that in the end he sacrifices himself not for religion or history, but for the very human reason that he cannot bear to simply stand and watch suffering.

The novel opens with a section of pseudo-history relating the tale of the Levy family since a massacre of Jews in York in 1185, through periods of persecution in the Spanish Inquisition, banishment form one country after another, until the family finally leaves Poland and settles in Germany in the early part of the twentieth century.

Three generations of the Levy family are alive as the book opens. Mordecai is head of the family, representing the eldest generation, and seemingly accepts that suffering is part of God's will and that active resistance is both futile and, in some barely understood way, actually wrong.

Mordecai's son Benjamin is more modern and less Jewish, and believes that assimilation into German society is the only way to survive.

But Mordecai refuses to listen to Benjamin and passes on the story of the Just Men to Ernie, his grandson. With the arrival of the Nazis in 1933, the overly imaginative child is convinced by his grandfather's words that he is destined to be a Just Man (a belief that Mordecai shares) and prepares joyfully to 'embrace his martyrdom' as only an overly imaginative and romantic child could.

Had the novel continued as expected from this point, then it would be an interesting addition to the library of Jewish Holocaust fiction, but little more.

But instead Schwarz-Bart mixes scenes of the almost banal cruelty of the Nazis alongside others of extraordinary lyricism. Ernie and his family escape to France, where Ernie attempts to take a positive role as a Just Man and joins the French army as a stretcher bearer, not fighting directly but not neither merely passively resisting.

The French Army, however, are defeated and Ernie ends up in Vichy France, attempting to lose himself amongst the mass of people, shucking off his Jewishness, attending Catholic Mass and indulging himself sexually. Having tried his own approach in the Army, Ernie now follows his father's advice and tries to embrace the Gentile lifestyle.

As with his spell in the Army though, this ends in failure and recognised as a Jew, Ernie returns to what he knows. Going back to the Jewish section of Paris, Ernie discovers four devout jews from his Polish village, who proclaim him to be a Just Man - an accusation that Ernie, running and hiding no longer, is forced to accept is true.

The triumph of the novel though - the thing which raises it above any school essay style criticism, which trumps any admiration we might have for the narrative structure or the clever way in which Ernie tries to survive in a time when Judaism can be fatal - is not that Ernie sacrifices himself because he is a Just Man, but that he does so for a far less mystical reason.

As the novel comes to an end, Ernie follows his lover Golda into the French transit camp at Drancy, unable to live without her. Once there, he agrees to go with Golda to face certain death in Auschwitz, rather than allow a group of 1500 orphaned children go alone to die there.

In the final few pages of the book, Ernie does all he can to look after the children - first telling them as they travel in a cattle-truck that they will soon be in Heaven, a place where "an eternal joy will crown your heads", and then in the same scene telling an old woman that there is "no room for truth" in Auschwitz - if a lie can provide comfort, then a lie is required. Finally, as he waits with Golda and the children for the deadly gas to come on in the showers, he tells them to breathe quickly and deeply, the more swiftly and easily to die.

It's an incredibly emotive passage to read but the pain felt in reading it is assuaged to an extent by a return to the mythical at the very, very end, as the author repeats over and over again the phrase 'And Praised be the Lord' with each sentence broken in three parts by the names of concentrations camps. That sounds like nothing much, admittedly, but this final stunted and malformed prayer seems, in retrospect, to be the only way to end the story.
And Praised. Auschwitz. Be. Maidenek. The Lord. Treblinka. And Praised. Buchenwald. Be. Mauthausen. The Lord. Belzec. And Praised. Sobibor.
Everyone should read this book but be warned - it'll have you in tears.


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Blogger SAF said...

Sounds a powerful read. Shame I'm very much in a 'reading just for fun' frame of mind at the moment!

2:40 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Reading for fun is best, I think - and as I'm not very good at 'proper' reviews, I wouldn't necessarily go by anything I've written about Last of the Just.

10:33 pm  

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