How is it that fiction, at its finest, can be more devastatingly true than history or memoir? In the case of Andre Schwarz-Bart's classic The Last of the Just, first published in 1959, translated into 16 languages, and now reissued by Overlook Press, the paradox is shattering enough to pierce all the reader's usual defenses. This is just a story, this never happened are not among the possible responses to a book which, by fusing several literary genres, mysteriously encompasses the colossal horror of Christian Europe's thousand-year pogrom against its Jews, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust.
Schwarz-Bart begins his novel as a quasi-historical catalogue of Jewish martyrdom through the generations of a single family, which he traces from the famous (and actual) Rabbi Yom Tov Levy of 12th-century England. Chased into a tower with his congregants by a murderous Christian mob, this revered sage of York killed his beloved fellow Jews and then himself with ineffable sweetness and sorrow, in the sanctification of God's name, rather than submit to forcible conversion.
This history is inherently complicated because it is bound up with the Jewish legend of the Lamed-Vov, the 36 Just Men upon whose suffering the world's existence depends. Schwarz-Bart turns both history and folklore into fiction with a simple device: In every generation since the Just Man of York, his descendants have yielded up a Lamed-Vovnik to God. And now, as Hitler comes to power in 1933, it is young Ernie Levy's climactic turn.
The author's genius for the mundane detail, infinitely lovely by virtue of its familiarity, makes every moment of the Levy saga a deathless one. The tiny kindnesses that Ernie receives from his noble teacher Herr Kramer and radiant girlfriend Ilse make these episodes perhaps the richest and most heartbreaking in the novel.
For those of us who have felt our imaginations collapse before the enormity of the Holocaust, Schwarz-Bart provides the soul-searing tools to build them up again. Something very much like a holy pact is forged between author and reader as we accompany Ernie Levy on his odyssey through the hell of Nazi Europe. In return for our willingness to press on in the face of such weariness of heart, we are granted a flawless artistic vision.
Michael Rose is a music professor at Vanderbilt.