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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 289

The story focuses on a man named Ernie Levy, who is named a Lamed-Vovnik, which in the Jewish tradition, means “a Just Man.” Ernie is living in Europe just before World War II, but his story begins centuries earlier, in 1185, just after a group of Jews were murdered in...

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The story focuses on a man named Ernie Levy, who is named a Lamed-Vovnik, which in the Jewish tradition, means “a Just Man.” Ernie is living in Europe just before World War II, but his story begins centuries earlier, in 1185, just after a group of Jews were murdered in England. According to Jewish legend, God proclaimed that 36 men from each generation would be named Lamed Vovnik, and as such, they would endure all the pain and suffering of the world. Without the Lamed-Vovnik, everyone in the world would die because the suffering would be too great. Schwarz-Bart tells the story of the men who inherited this position before Ernie, and then he focuses on Ernie. Ernie learns the stories of the Lamed Vovnik, and he prepares himself to accept his fate.

As a child, Ernie is tortured and tormented by his friends, and he suffers unbelievable mental anguish. He becomes mad and soon comes to believe that he is nothing more than a dog. As World War II intensifies, he falls in love with Golda, however, a physically disabled Jewish girl who makes him feel loved and wanted. Soon, however, she is taken by the Germans to a concentration camp to die. Ernie follows her there, and he asks to be admitted. At the concentration camp at the hands of the Germans, he suffers unbelievable torture again. However, he is able to be with Golda for a short time before they are taken to the gas chamber to die. He travels to the gas chamber with Jewish children, who are doomed to die as well, and on the train and in the gas chamber he does his best to comfort them and make their deaths a little more bearable.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1296

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 of Paris signals a return to life and love and the working out of his destiny as a Just Man.

André Schwarz-Bart uses various distancing devices to detach the reader from an immediate emotional identification with the characters. The narrator himself speaks with a detached and often ironic tone. Frequently he refers to or apparently quotes from historical records and witnesses. Interspersed with vague chronological references are specific names, places, and dates. The calm and objective narrative is broken only by flashes of irony, but the detachment begins to thin as the narrator approaches the twentieth century. The Levy Just Men become more and more fully developed characters to whom the reader responds, and the novelistic detail intensifies.

Zemyock, where the Levys had originally come to rest, is in almost magical isolation from the brutal realities of the world. Its atmosphere is to be re-created by the author, from time to time, in each of the later places inhabited by the Levys, from Berlin to Auschwitz. This vision is projected often for Stillenstadt, “Quiet City,” where Ernie grows up. The pervasive charm of the town provides the magical background for Ernie’s discovery of himself as a Lamed-Vovnik and for his attempted suicide as well. Later, in Paris, the charm of a spring day in a park is set against the certainty of the deaths of Ernie and Golda, just as the internment camp rises amid the suburban tranquillity of Drancy. The final reality of Auschwitz seems itself unreal, with an orchestra playing on the route the prisoners take to the gas chambers. Ernie’s tears of blood seem merely an acceptable response.

The narrator or a child is usually the medium by which these Magical Realist episodes are described. Stillness, the contrasts of light and shadow, the interpenetration of dream and reality, violence and rescue, all produce not only a narrative but also, and more incisively, a vision of a world of ambiguity and anguish. Schwarz-Bart’s prose is never bitter, but his thesis is clear: Jewish suffering through the ages is the responsibility of a Christianity that turns the cross upside down, wielding it as a sword against innocent victims.

Although the thrust of the novel is clear, the author’s stance is sometimes ambiguous. Ernie is the last Just Man, yet he dies in Auschwitz. Earlier, there have been ironic comments, such as Mother Judith’s “What a great God is ours, . . . and how oddly he runs the world!” There has also been Benjamin Levy’s cry, “If God did not exist . . . where does all the suffering go?” In addition, the novel concludes with an anguished prayer interspersed with the names of concentration camps: “And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Maidanek. The Lord. Treblinka. And praised. Buchenwald. Be. . . .” The last word, however, is less ambiguous:Yes, at times one’s heart could break in sorrow. But often too, preferably in the evening, I can’t help thinking that Ernie Levy, dead six million times, is still alive somewhere, I don’t know where. . . . Yesterday, as I stood in the street trembling in despair, rooted to the spot, a drop of pity fell from above upon my face. But there was no breeze in the air, no cloud in the sky. . . . There was only a presence.

It is probable that the self-educated Schwarz-Bart was influenced in the 1950’s by the work of Jorge Luis Borges, and it is possible also that during that same period Gabriel García Márquez was influenced either by Schwarz-Bart or by similar literary tendencies, which have characterized much modern Latin American literature as well as its European counterpart.

Upon its publication, The Last of the Just, while provoking a teapot tempest of criticism, garnered the prestigious Prix Goncourt and major critical acclaim. Thereafter, it fell from notice. It was viewed as outside the French literary mainstream; as Holocaust literature, it was frequently considered in critical categories other than the literary.

Schwarz-Bart later published, with his wife, two novels following The Last of the Just: Un Plat de porc aux bananes vertes (1967; a plate of pork with green bananas) and La Mulatresse Solitude (1972; A Woman Named Solitude, 1973), each with a black woman as protagonist. These works bridge the centuries of Jewish agony and the Holocaust, and the centuries of black enslavement, with an explication and a perception of humanity’s sufferings. The Last of the Just stands not merely as the first of a trilogy, however, but as a major work on its own merits, a work of French literature, of Jewish and Holocaust literature, and of modern Magical Realism.

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