Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274
“The Last of the Just” is a story by Andre Schwarz-Bart. The story is about Ernie Levy, who is the last just man; he was eventually killed at Auschwitz. The book has many characters, including Ernie Levy, Mordecai Levy, Golda, and Benjamin Levy, among others. Ernie is not only named as a Lamed-Vovnik, but he happens to be the last Lamed-Vovnik from Levy’s family. The term "Lamed-Vovnik" refers to the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men (or righteous people) of mystical Jewish belief.
Mordecai Levy is depicted as a staunch believer in Jewish traditions, which he closely observes. His wife is named Judith Levy. He is the grandfather of Ernie Levy, and he vests much interest in establishing the next “just man” from the Levy family. It is through his determination and insight that the spirit of the Lamed-Vovnik is awakened in Ernie’s mind and heart. Later, Ernie requests to be incarcerated in a concentration camp to be with the love of his life, Golda. He has to undergo immense torture, for he is thought to be a spy. Eventually, he is allowed into the camp and reunites with Golda, though for a short period. Later, they are escorted to the gas chambers, where they are both executed together with several children. Even in death, Ernie chooses to be an inspiration to the rest, especially to the children, by reassuring them that soon they will be reunited with their parents in paradise, in a bid to make it bearable for them. Other minor characters who help in the development of the plot include Fraulein Blumenthal and Benjamin Levy, who are Ernie’s parents.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 675
Ernie Levy, a furrier’s apprentice and one of the thirty-six Just Men. Born in Germany, this second son of Benjamin and Leah Levy studied secular subjects as well as Hebrew and the Talmud. He is intelligent, sensitive, and loving, so he quickly understands, though at first rejects, the need for martyrdom that pervades the history of the Levys and the Just Men. At the end of 1938, after Nazi persecution erupts, Ernie and his family emigrate to Paris, and he soon enlists in the French army. Following France’s defeat and his demobilization, he leads a hidden existence until he is recognized as Jewish. He returns to Paris at the age of twenty, an Unknown Just, an Inconsolable. There, he falls in love with Golda Engelbaum. After she is taken in a Nazi raid, he joins her in the internment camp. In October, 1943, he volunteers to accompany her and a group of children to Auschwitz to console them in their fear and death. In the gas chamber, while comforting them, he addresses a final prayer.
Mordecai Levy, a retired itinerant peddler. He is Ernie’s grandfather and the keeper of Levy tradition. In his young adulthood in Poland, he was tall, handsome, full of cheer and humor, and eager to conquer new worlds. After his marriage to Judith Ackerman, whom he dearly loves, he became henpecked, except in matters concerning Ernie’s Jewish education.
Judith Levy, a housewife. As a young woman, she was the beautiful daughter of a well-to-do baker, strong-willed, impatient, sensible, and smart. In Germany, she is able to adapt to her new life as she grows in stature and influence, ultimately becoming Mother Judith, the protector of the clan. She and the other Levys all die in a concentration camp.
Benjamin Levy, a tailor. Ernie’s father is bright and introspective, wondering about the nature of God and the origin of evil. After surviving a pogrom, he moves first to Berlin and then to Stillenstadt, where he sets up a tailor’s shop and marries Leah Blumenthal, with whom he has four children. Like his father before him and his son after him, Benjamin refuses to accept his Just Man status.
Leah Levy, a housewife. Leah is a pleasant young woman, thin and tiny, in awe of her formidable mother-in-law. She desperately seeks reassurance of her own importance in her husband’s eyes. Not until their death in the camps, however, does she understand the depth of his feelings.
Golda Engelbaum, Ernie’s fiancée. She is a vivacious, pretty, red-haired young woman who, despite her limp and the constant Nazi roundups of Jews, lives to the fullest, perhaps resigned but not bitter. A gay and fantastic storyteller, she is a fine contrast to the serious and thoughtful Ernie. It is after a liberating walk through Paris without the infamous yellow star that they make love in his garret and she becomes his “wife.” Later, she is interned at a transit camp and shipped to Auschwitz to die.
Julius Kremer, a schoolteacher. In his thirty-two years of teaching in Stillenstadt, Kremer most enjoys speaking of the civic consciousness presented in the works of Friedrich von Schiller. Because he speaks against Nazi terror, he is accused of loving Jews; because he encourages the budding romance between the Jewish Ernie Levy and the gentile Ilse Bruckner, he is dismissed.
Ilse Bruckner, a pupil. Ilse, a young classmate of Ernie, is a delicate, blond girl, flirtatious but cruel with Ernie, whom she likes for his beatific weakness yet despises for his Jewishness.
The narrator, a friend of Ernie. He writes of Ernie’s ancestry in a detached manner at first and comments objectively about universal political cowardice vis-à-vis persecutions of Jews. He soon wearies of so much pain and suffering. Angry with God for abandoning His people, he feels the presence of the six million tormented Jewish souls. He writes the novel to bear witness.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 117
Sources for Further Study
Kirkup, James. “Obituaries: André Schwarz-Bart, Author of The Last of the Just.” Independent, October 5, 2006, p. 41.
Lazarus, Joyce Block. Strangers and Sojourners: Jewish Identity in Contemporary Francophone Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
Menton, Seymour. “The Last of the Just: Between Borges and García Márquez.” World Literature Today 59 (Fall, 1985): 517-524.
Popkin, Henry. “Around a Prize-Winner, a Paris Literary Storm.” The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1959, p. 1.
Raider, Mark A. “Questioning the Meaning of Martyrdom: A Classic Novel of the Holocaust Returns to Print.” Forward 104 (June 2, 2000): 11.
Scharfman, Ronnie. “Significantly Other: Simone and André Schwarz-Bart.” In Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership, edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
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