The Last of the Just (Le Dernier Des Justes)
THE LAST OF THE JUST (Le Dernier des justes)
Novel by André Schwarz-Bart, 1959
The French Jewish author André Schwarz-Bart's first novel, Le Dernier des justes (1959; The Last of the Just, 1960), stands as a most somber, and at the same time poetic, depiction of the historical path of suffering trodden by the Jewish people. Framed by a period of 760 years, the narrative follows the ancient legend of the Just Men—the Lamed-Waf —through the Levy dynasty. Beginning with the martyrdom of York's Jews under the leadership of Rabbi Yom Tov Levy in 1185, the story winds its way through the European geography of anti-Semitism until it ends in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. By the book's end the reader has been exposed not only to the passions of the Just Men of the Levy clan but, through them, to the sufferings of the entire Jewish people. Indeed, this note of vicariousness, as the foundation of the Just Man tradition, rings consistently throughout the novel. Auschwitz, Majdanek, Buchenwald, Sobibor, and Belzec (the names of Nazi infamy are listed, almost liturgically, on the final page) become, therefore, entrenched within the boundaries of historical context as the not altogether unforeseeable (but not, for that reason, any the less horrific) climax to the centuries-long stain of European Christendom's anti-Semitism. Inevitably, therefore, the book stands as both a testament to the paradoxical triumph of the Just Men in the face of such terror and an accusation against the culture that, in Christian piety, took the cross of Christ by its other end and made a sword out of it.
Schwarz-Bart orders his narrative strictly chronologically. He begins with the story of Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, who, in defiance of Bishop William of Nordhouse's inflammatory sermon and the devout Christian mob that sought to put his words into bloody action, martyred himself and his coreligionists and thus segued his deed of pious resistance into the tradition of the Lamed-Waf. From here Schwarz-Bart traces the Levy dynasty in rapid succession for 12 generations, before jumping finally to the figure of Mordecai Levy, grandfather of the eventual hero Ernie, with whom he commences a fuller history.
The novel makes no sense, however, if it is read merely as a genealogy of Jewish suffering. Nor does it resonate if it is taken as a historical fiction designed to illustrate the inevitability of the Holocaust. Rather it is only within the paradigm of the Lamed-Waf legend that the novel acquires its poetic and pedagogical significance.
According to that ancient Talmudist tradition, "the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov [ sic ], indistinguishable from simple mortals … But if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs." It is this tradition that provides the interpretive paradigm for the novel and in which the main characters, from the venerable Rabbi Yom Tov Levy to his distant descendant Ernie, are positioned. Throughout it all the Just Men are shown to be fallible, at times unlikable, often unsure of their status and usually trying to escape from it—but nevertheless indispensable.
Intoning consistently throughout the narrative is this question: How can one possibly be a Jew? As Mother Judith puts it, "When will God stop miracling us that way?" The paradox of Jewish election thus becomes a defining motif throughout the text: How is it that a people can be so precious to God and yet at the same time so cruelly forsaken to persecution? The answer at which Schwarz-Bart arrives, of course, is that the Lamed-Waf bear in themselves the suffering of the Jews in the same way that the Jews bear in themselves the suffering of the rest of humanity. There is, in other words, a twin dialectic of vicariousness at work throughout the novel. It is in the necessity of this dialectic that the answer to Judith's question lies.
The dialectic is also, however, paradoxical. As Schwarz-Bart says at the close of the novel, Ernie Levy, as the cipher of all the Just Men, remains yet alive, even though dead six million times. There remains a presence—of Ernie? of indestructible Jewish spirit? of vicarious burden?—that testifies to the essence of the Lamed-Waf that continues to bear the soul and history of humanity, even in the wake of the Holocaust. And for that reason the novel ends on a note of cautious optimism. "Yes … sorrow. But … preferably, " concludes the author. There is cause, however muffled, for hope. Sorrow is circumscribed by the remembrance of this "But … preferably." And it is in this that the Just Men find their reason and vindication.
—Mark R. Lindsay