(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Although the bulk of The Last of the Just deals with Ernie Levy, it begins with a brief episodic history of his family from 1185 to 1792, for tradition held that God had granted the Levy family, in each generation, one Lamed-Vovnik—a member of the Lamed Vov, the thirty-six Just Men who absorb the world’s suffering: “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.”

Through the centuries, the Levys wandered and suffered as did all the Jews. A Levy finally settles in Zemyock, a small and isolated Polish town. When, soon after World War I, the town is captured by White Guard Cossacks, the refugee Levys find a place in Stillenstadt, Germany. The patriarch, Mordecai, and his wife, Mother Judith, are supported by their son Benjamin’s tailor shop. Then, the almost unreal, idyllic charm of Stillenstadt is shattered by Nazi violence. Benjamin’s second son, Ernie, experiences this tragedy with particular intensity; after concluding that he is a Lamed-Vovnik, he attempts suicide.

The Levys become refugees again, managing to find a niche in Paris. While Ernie enlists in the army, the Vichy government rounds up Jews; the Levy family, except for Ernie, is interned and then sent to their deaths. For a time, Ernie sinks into—indeed wallows in—a deliberately unhuman life focused on food and lust, but when a sympathetic Christian refers to his “Jewish eyes,” he once again becomes capable of feeling. The twenty-year-old Ernie returns to the Jews left in Paris and falls in love with Golda Engelbaum. When she is taken to the internment camp at Drancy, he follows her. He rides with her and a group of frightened children in the boxcar to Auschwitz. Having comforted and calmed them, as the door of the gas chamber closes, “he knew that he could do nothing more for anyone in the world. . . .”

Although the novel focuses on Ernie, several other characters are also developed in detail. Ernie’s grandfather, Mordecai, is large and tough as well as traditionally learned and pious; when Nazis come to burn Torah scrolls, Mordecai charges at them, swinging an iron bar. He is an archetype, the Patriarch, as Judith is the archetype of Mother. Lesser characters, such as Benjamin Levy, are finely crafted, their essential personalities explicated in their idiosyncratic approaches to life. Even Golda, whose late appearance in the novel gives her only scant space, is a fully developed character; the swift and mutual love between her and Ernie has no aspect of literary contrivance. Myriad other minor characters are etched with a sure hand in taut and beautiful prose.

From his birth, Ernie is distinctive: Second to his older brother in size and courage as well as age, smaller even than his younger brother, he has flashes of insight into others’ souls, a magical concept of the world. Preoccupied with his destiny as a Lamed-Vovnik, he fantasizes about protecting all the Jews; only after his family’s deportation does he attempt to escape his role by means of a Rabelaisian but despairing lifestyle. His return to humanity and the Jews...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)