January 25, 2008

The Last of the Just

André Schwarz-Bart's book, Le dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just, אחרון הצדיקים), received the most famous literary prize in France, the Goncourt (1959).

I have a particular relationship to this book. Because of a similarity in the name, people asked me over and over "are you in the writer's family?" What is this famous book all about for so many people to try to relate me to its author, I always wondered. But the book was not one of the four thousand-odd books in the shelves at home.

Laclos, Sade and even Alain Peyrefitte ("Quand la Chine s'éveillera") were allowed somewhere into the library, however hidden, but not André Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just.

It is finally in my aunt's library that I found it, in it's original 1959 edition. Along with an Israeli 1967 propaganda booklet, Mao's "Little Red Book" and a few other oddities, I saved it for later reading. When I moved to Israel, this off-white and orange hardcover was among the few books I took along.

And on a lonely evening here in Jerusalem, I start reading, finally, at the age of 27, Le dernier des Justes.

Is the style pompous or old-fashioned? Is the author cynical or whining when he tells the remarkable death of Yom-Tov Levy during the York massacre and the fate of the rabbi's descendants? I couldn't tell. I got confronted to a text I didn't know how to read. And quickly I gave up. Anyway, we know the last of the Just will die in Auschwitz, so why go on reading this lament?

But in 1959 less had been written on the subject than today. And Schwarz-Bart got the Goncourt for this book. So there must be something to this book. I dived back into it. And slowly I understood the irony, the weight of his own experience that the author conveyed in the book. Through the stages of the story - the legend of the lamed-wav, the early 20th century in Zemyock, Poland, the 30's in Germany, the war in France and the last journey to Auschwitz - the tone and writing styles constantly change, unsettling the reader. The only constant is irony. It all starts as a legendary tale. Later, realism is invited into the account of Ernie Levy's childhood under the persecutions in Stillenstadt, Germany, which sends shivers up the spine. Ernie tries to understand. He has been told the tale of the lamed-wav Just. With innocence he tries to sacrifice himself. He attempts on his life. When Ernie wanders through France during the war, his family long lost, he has given up his human dignity, he has decided he had better be a dog. Did he have anything left that the Nazis could take from him? He falls in love and they take his beloved. Ernie is a ghost, more than ever. He volunteers to to join his beloved, Golda, in Drancy and from there to Auschwitz. They die together. "And so it was of millions, who passed from the state of Luftmensch to that of Luft.", writes the author, in one of the last sentences of the book.
"Thus, this story will not end on any grave to visit in memory. Because the smoke which exits the cremators obeys like any other the laws of physics: particles gather and disperse with the wind, which lifts them. The only pilgrimage would be, respectable reader, to look sometimes at a stormy sky with melancholy."

"Ainsi donc, cette histoire ne s’achèvera pas sur quelque tombe à visiter en souvenir. Car la fumée qui sort des crématoires obéit tout comme une autre aux lois physiques : les particules s’assemblent et se dispersent au vent, qui les pousse. Le seul pèlerinage serait, estimable lecteur, de regarder parfois un ciel d’orage avec mélancolie."

The sky is indeed very gray today on Jerusalem.

No comments: