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Last Reviewed 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 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1585 words.)

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