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Schwarz-Bart, André

SCHWARZ-BART, André

Nationality: French. Born: Metz, Lorraine, 1928. Education: Sorbonne, University of Paris. Military Service: French Resistance during World War II. Family: Married Simone in 1961. Career: Prisoner in German concentration camp during World War II. Has worked as a mechanic, salesman, miner, librarian, and foundry laborer. Since 1959 writer. Awards: Prix Goncourt, 1959, for Le Dernier des justes ; Jerusalem prize, 1967, for Un Plat de porc aux bananes vertes.

Publication

Novels

Le Dernier des justes. 1959; as The Last of the Just, 1960.

Un Plat de porc aux bananes vertes [A Plate of Pork with Green Bananas], with Simone Schwarz-Bart. 1967.

La Mulatresse Solitude, with Simone Schwarz-Bart. 1972; as A Woman Named Solitude, 1973.

Other

Hommage á la femme noire (6 vols.), with Simone Schwarz-Bart. 1989; as In Praise of Black Women, 2001.

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Critical Studies:

"History and Martyrological Tragedy: The Jewish Experience in Sholem Asch and André Schwarz-Bart" by Stanley Brodwin, in Twentieth Century Literature, 40(1), Spring 1994, p. 72.

* * *

André Schwarz-Bart, born in Metz in 1928 to Polish immigrants, was 11 years old when World War II broke out. Over the next five years he joined the Maquis, was captured by the Nazis, escaped, and finally fought with the Free French Army until the liberation of Europe. By the time the war was over, however, his own survival was overshadowed by the murder of the rest of his family in Nazi extermination camps. It was undoubtedly this tragedy that supplied the influence for his first foray into literature, his celebrated novel Le Dernier des justes (1959; The Last of the Just, 1960).

Because the onset of war had severely disrupted his education, Schwarz-Bart was largely ignorant of critical events and motifs in Jewish literature and culture. Perhaps due to these gaps the traditional legend of the Lamed-Waf was transformed—some say distorted—in his novel. Whereas in most versions of the legend the Righteous Men appear as isolated individuals, unknown both to one another and indeed to all other people until a time of anti-Semitic crisis, in Schwarz-Bart's story the Lamed-Waf belong to the one clan, the Levy family, with the mantle of righteousness passing as an inheritance from one generation to the next.

As a consequence the legend is changed in his version into a story of preordained self-sacrifice. Thus, in a curious paradox, although the novel stands as a particularly bitter indictment of European Christendom's anti-Semitic history, there remains a semi-Christian flavor to the text that for some readers jars oddly with the legend's intrinsic Jewishness.

It is possible, however, that this transformation of the legend is not in fact the result of cultural ignorance on Schwarz-Bart's part. Rather it is perhaps better understood as the author's best interpretation of Jewish survival in the midst, and in spite, of centuries of persecution. In other words, in the dark shadow of the Holocaust, and with the horror of Nazi genocide having struck him a deeply personal blow, Schwarz-Bart's natural question concerned the possibility of survival in such circumstances. How, after all that European Jewry had undergone, could there still be a remnant left? In this context the trajectory of his novel becomes less a matter of self-sacrifice and more a matter of cautious hope. If Auschwitz was the great "No!" to the Jewish people, Schwarz-Bart's novel attempts to circumscribe that "No!" with a "Nevertheless!"

If this is the case then Schwarz-Bart's place in the pantheon of Holocaust writers possibly lies more with Elie Wiesel than Richard Rubenstein. The latter felt compelled by the Holocaust to reject the traditional Jewish perception of God and return in desperation to Camusian philosophy, nature worship and, later, mysticism. In contrast Wiesel employed his despair to offer up questions to God, to accept with humility the fatuousness of certainty, and to circumscribe his doubts with the ever present "And yet … "

Both Wiesel and Schwarz-Bart have raised the most serious questions about God and his dealings with the Jewish people. Neither have been able adequately to answer their own queries. For both, the Holocaust casts a shadow over the comfort of covenantal relationship. But both prefer to leave their questions open rather than closing them with the finality of unbelief. The necessity of their respective "Howevers" or "And yets" speaks of their despair in the wake of the Shoah but also of their reluctance to admit final defeat. It is for this reason that, in spite of its title, Schwarz-Bart's novel The Last of the Just does not resonate with ultimate gloom. The Holocaust does not have the last word. A presence remains, righteousness is alive—somewhere.

—Mark R. Lindsay

See the essay on The Last of the Just.

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