André Schwarz-Bart

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André Schwarz-Bart (shvarts bahrt), one of the most important French writers of the post-Holocaust period, was born of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland in 1924. In the close-knit community of their Jewish neighborhood, they followed Orthodox tradition (the father had prepared for the rabbinate), told and retold Hebrew stories and legends, and spoke only Yiddish. In fact, it was not until he attended public school that Schwarz-Bart learned French and associated with gentile children; by that time he had, however, already been subjected to anti-Semitic insults and violence. On days off from school he helped his father sell stockings in the open-air markets. In 1940, after the outbreak of war in France, the family was evacuated first to the Île d’Oléron, off the Atlantic coast, then to Angoulême, where Schwarz-Bart studied metalworking. There the Germans arrested his parents, two brothers, and a sister. At the age of fourteen, left to care for three younger brothers, he hired out as a farm laborer, until he and his brothers were shipped to Paris in early 1943.

In Paris Schwarz-Bart became a member of the Communist Youth League and, lying about his age, joined the Resistance movement. He was able to smuggle his brothers, as well as his sister, whom he coolly had taken out of a children’s home, into the so-called Free Zone. After his arrest in Limoges and subsequent escape, he continued his underground activities until the end of the war, when he learned that his parents and brothers had been killed in the concentration camp. He accepted his responsibilities as head of the remaining family and, at the age of seventeen, worked during the day in a foundry; at night he read books borrowed from the public library, devouring detective and mystery novels, as well as classics such as Fyodor Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment (1866).

Spurred by the need to relate his experience, Schwarz-Bart began to devote his spare time to improving his written and spoken French, which had been completely neglected during his wandering war years, and he passed the baccalauréat examinations in 1948. After a discouraging semester at the Sorbonne, he dropped out of the university, but he resumed his studies in 1950 and earned a certificate in philosophy. To pay for his tuition, he successively worked as a counselor at a Jewish orphanage, secretary of the Jewish Student Association, and instructor at the Jewish Refuge in Neuilly. In the meantime, influenced by Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, Stendhal, Georges Bernanos, Lautréamont, Thomas Mann, and above all the Old Testament, he wrote short stories in which he incorporated not only their ideas and themes but also the accounts of Nazi terror that he heard from his young charges.

One of these narratives is the somewhat autobiographical “La Fin de Marcus Libnitzki” (the end of Marcus Libnitzki), published in 1953, which relates the death of a young Jewish Resistance fighter shot by the Germans in Limoges, as told to Marcus’s brother by various witnesses. To explain how the Jews had let themselves be exterminated, Schwarz-Bart planned a vast novel that would use the past to illuminate the present. Dissatisfied with a first draft, he reworked the entire premise to include the device of a fictional biographer who discovers a manuscript about a family of Jewish spiritual leaders; the manuscript begins in 1819 and ends on a French train bound for a concentration camp. An early excerpt, “La Légende des Justes” (the legend of the Just Men), appeared in 1956 as part of the unpublished “biography of Ernie Levy.” Still displeased, however, he rewrote the story three more times. The...

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final text, much expanded and tightened, used a more conventional linear time sequence, from the 1185 pogrom in York, England, to the 1943 destruction in the ovens of Auschwitz of Ernie Levy, his young “bride” Golda, and the children they are shepherding. In 1959 the novel, now entitledThe Last of the Just, won the prestigious Goncourt Prize and became a worldwide success. The book also engendered some controversy, partly because he had refused to portray Jews as willing to resist and fight the Nazis and their other oppressors. Instead he wanted to present the continuity of Jewish suffering exemplified in the Talmudic tradition of the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men, who through their conduct may help redeem humanity.

Two years after publication of this work, Schwarz-Bart married. His wife, Simone, a student from Guadeloupe, became a novelist in her own right; they had two sons. He and his wife collaborated on a novel about the desperate struggle of black women in the French Antilles and of their ancestors in precolonial Africa. Taking its title from the old heroine’s memory of the day she took a plate of pork with green bananas to her mother’s lover, Un Plat de porc aux bananes vertes, which was published in 1967, was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. A Woman Named Solitude, which Schwarz-Bart wrote alone, re-creates the beauty and joy of African life and folklore, contrasting them with the cruelty of West Indian plantation owners and the humiliation of the slaves. Throughout his three novels, Schwarz-Bart emphasizes the dignity and grandeur of victims who try to live ethically and well in spite of the horror. André Schwarz-Bart was not himself a witness to Nazi genocide or to the enslavement of Africans, but both topics are central to his work, and it is as one of the epic poets of Jewish martyrdom that he is best known.

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