The Last of the Just

by André Schwarz-Bart

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart chronicles the history of the Levy family in Poland at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Levy family is unique in that God has chosen them to bear a prophet or a kind of savior in each generation. This savior is called a Lamed-Vovnik, who is a member of the Just Men. The Lamed Vov, or Just Men, are responsible for absorbing the suffering in the world. This is reminiscent of the story of Jesus Christ, who, according to biblical tradition, died for the world's sins and sufferings.

In this generation, the Lamed-Vovnik is Ernie, who becomes the central figure of the story. There is no concrete evidence that he is the Lamed-Vovnik of his family, but he believes this to be the case. The Levy family migrates to different parts of Europe due to the persecution of Jews. They leave Poland because of the White Guard Cossacks. Then, after settling in a small town in Germany, the Levy family witnesses the rise of the Nazi Party and their program of violence and xenophobia.

It is during this time that Ernie assumes that he is the Lamed-Vovnik and, in despair, attempts suicide. This makes Ernie a contradictory figure because, as a Lamed-Vovnik, he is supposed to absorb the suffering of the world, and yet he himself is suffering from existential despair.

When the family again moves across Europe, they settle in Paris. However, they cannot escape the violence of the war and the persecution of Jews. Ernie begins to lose his way as a Lamed-Vovnik and dives into a lifestyle of gluttony and worldly pleasures. Meanwhile, many of his family members are sent to death camps while he is spared, possibly due to his position in the military.

However, Ernie has an awakening after a Christian woman triggers a realization about his Jewish identity. Like many prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, an awakening precedes Ernie's trajectory into becoming an instrument of God. In the end, he finds himself comforting women and children in a boxcar headed to Auschwitz. He comforts the children as they enter the gas chambers at the death camp. Afterwards, Ernie concludes that "he could do nothing more for anyone in the world."

This conclusion could be interpreted as him succeeding in his role as a Lamed-Vovnik or failing in that role. He cannot physically prevent the deaths of the people, but it is not his role to do so, only to make sure they don't suffer in the process. So, one can conclude that he indeed succeeds in his role.

The novel won literary prizes upon its publication and is considered an example of magic-realist fiction. The story of Ernie and the concept of the Lamed-Vovnik is symbolic of the interconnections of all human beings in regard to universal emotions, such as suffering. In a sense, all people are Lamed-Vovniks, or have the potential to be one, for as long as people do not lose their humanity and become apathetic to injustices.

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