The Last of the Just

by André Schwarz-Bart

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Schwarz-Bart presents the Jewish legend of The Just Men through a fictional story centered around a man named Ernie Levy, who is a Lamed-Vovnik (Just Man). According to the Jewish tradition, God appoints thirty-six special men in each generation to carry the burdens and suffering of those around them.

The novel begins:

Our eyes register the light of dead stars. A biography of my friend Ernie could easily be set in the second quarter of the twentieth century, but the true history of Ernie Levy begins much earlier, toward the year 1,000 of our era, in the old Anglican city of York. More precisely, on March 11, 1185

Ernie is the last his family to be called to fulfill his destiny.

If you ground up a Levy in a mortar, . . . amid the grains on the pestle would be their gentleness.

Here, Schwarz-Bart shares the tradition of The Just Men:

Rivers of blood have flowed, columns of smoke have obscured the sky, but surviving all these dooms, the tradition has remained inviolate down to our own time. According to it, the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they are unaware of their station. But 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. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.

Again, Schwarz-Bart expounds on the fate of The Just Men after they have served humbly in the shadows on earth, making a difference anywhere they can.

When an unknown Just rises to heaven, he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise. And it is known that some remain forever inconsolable at human woe, so that God Himself cannot warm them. So from time to time the Creator, blessed be His name, sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment by one minute.

While fictional, this piece includes references to many historical events which Jews faced over eight centuries, including the Holocaust. Schwarz-Bart was a Holocaust survivor, and he highlights the challenges, prejudice, hatred, death, and tragedies the Jewish people have overcome as they continue in their faith.

"But after all, dear Mr. Goldfaden," he went on, chilled by fear, "if God did not exist, what would you and I be?" The old man offered a compassionate smile, and his voice sought vainly for the lost tone of gaiety. "Poor little Jewish men, no?”

Throughout Ernie's life, he becomes saddened, depressed, and distraught at what he both sees and endures. He and the love of his life, Golda, are eventually in a concentration camp together.

Suffering becomes Israel like a red ribbon on a white horse. We shall bear the sufferings of the world, we shall take its grief upon ourselves and we shall be considered as punished, stricken by the Lord and humiliated.

But, in the end, he justly helps frightened children in gas chambers be at peace as they all pass into eternity.

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