The Last Mohican

views updated


Short Story by Bernard Malamud, 1958

An American named Fidelman, the subject of a number of stories Bernard Malamud later collected for Pictures of Fidelman (1969), first appears in "The Last Mohican" in the collection The Magic Barrel (1958). He has arrived in post-World War II Italy to study the art of Giotto, the subject of a monograph he is writing. He carries with him a new briefcase and a draft of his opening chapter, on which he plans to work before moving from Rome to Florence to continue his studies. But his education in Rome turns out to be far different from the study of Giotto's art that he had planned and far more important.

At the train station in Rome Fidelman immediately meets Shimon Susskind, a refugee, formerly from Israel but evidently a person displaced after the war and a likely Holocaust survivor. Poor, gaunt, "oddly dressed in brown knickers and black, knee-length woollen socks," conversant in Yiddish as well as other languages—Susskind appears as a relic of the formerly flourishing Hasidic communities of central Europe. Recognizing Fidelman as Jewish, he greets him with "Shalom," to which the student hesitantly replies, using the word for probably the first time in his life.

This is how the relationship between the two men begins. Susskind explains how he came to leave Israel and live in Italy, which he finds more congenial to his health and general well-being, though he is without a passport (stolen, he claims) and without any means of earning a livelihood except peddling and—to raise the capital for his investment—schnorring. Soon he starts asking Fidelman to give him a suit, which he says he badly needs, what with winter coming on. But Fidelman has only two suits to his name; therefore, he tries to palm him off with a dollar instead. Not satisfied, Susskind asks for more, until finally Fidelman shakes him off and goes to his hotel.

Susskind follows him and continues to harangue him for his suit. Fidelman continues to resist, asking why he should be responsible for this stranger, when Susskind responds that if he, a human being and a Jew like himself, is not, who is? Exasperated, Fidelman again tries to fob Susskind off with some of his meager funds and gives him five dollars. Hoping to be rid of him for good, he changes his residence. Nevertheless, Susskind finds him again and resumes his harangue, this time trying to get Fidelman to go into business with him selling women's stockings and again asking him for a suit.

Susskind finally leaves Fidelman alone, and the latter returns to his hotel, only to find his new briefcase and the important, and so far only, chapter of his book on Giotto missing. Nothing else is missing—only that. He suspects Susskind as the thief but cannot understand why he would take those items and nothing else. He sets out next day to find Susskind, but his hunt turns up nothing. Weeks turn into months as Fidelman searches in the ghetto, in synagogues, and among peddlers but finds no trace of the refugee. He is desperate, because without the initial chapter he feels that he cannot continue his work. Told that Susskind sometimes works in a cemetery, Fidelman looks for him there, but he sees only a grave whose inscription starkly recalls the Holocaust: "My beloved father/Betrayed by the damned Fascists/Murdered at Auschwitz by the barbarous Nazis/O Crime Orribile."

A month later Fidelman discovers Susskind peddling holy beads near the Vatican and surreptitiously follows him home into the ghetto. His home is a poor, barren hole in the wall, but before Fidelman returns the next day to look for his manuscript, he dreams of "Virgilio Susskind," a ghost that leads him into a synagogue, where he sees Giotto's painting of Saint Francis handing an old knight his cloak.

Enlightened by his dream, Fidelman stuffs his gabardine suit into a bag and runs to Susskind's hovel. He sees the refugee lighting a candle, apparently with a page of a typewritten manuscript, but he gives him the suit anyway. As Fidelman leaves, Susskind goes after him and returns the briefcase, empty of the missing chapter, which he has burned, claiming that he has done Fidelman a favor. Furious at him and threatening to slit his throat, Fidelman chases after Susskind until, catching his breath, he remembers what he has learned and shouts, "Susskind, come back. The suit is yours. All is forgiven." But Susskind keeps running and disappears into the ghetto.

Responsibility for one's fellow human beings, not only for one's fellow Jews (but perhaps especially for them), is the theme of Malamud's story. While not a dominant or explicit motif, the Holocaust and its significance nonetheless play their essential part. The failure of responsibility, of human compassion, such as Saint Francis had for the poor knight and Fidelman finally has for poor Susskind, permitted the Holocaust to occur, Malamud seems to be implying.

—Jay L. Halio