THE BOOK- In every generation, according to Jewish tradition, thirty-six just men, the Lamed-waf, are born to take the burden of the world's suffering upon themselves. At York in 1185 the just man was Rabbi Yom Tov Levey, whose sacrifice so touched God that he gave his descendants one just man each generation, all the way down to Ernie Levey, the last of the just, killed at Auschwitz in 1943. This, then, is the story of Ernie Levey.
I have read many novels, memoirs, and histories about the Holocaust, but this may be the most literary that I've encountered. It is beautifully written and weaves history, legend, and religion into a fascinating story about the transference of the Just Man from one generation to the next within the Levy family, culminating in the life and death of Ernie Levy. The story begins with the horrific tales of Rabbi Yom Tov Levy and his progeny who suffered death and martyrdom over and over throughout the centuries in most of the countries of Europe. It is a seemingly endless cycle of persecution bringing us into the present with the story of Ernie's grandfather, Mordecai.
As an adolescent, Mordecai was forced to leave the shtetl of Zemyock, Poland and hire himself out as a farm hand in order to keep his parents and siblings from starvation. They would rather starve, because to the Hasidic Levy family, nothing is worth turning from the study of God. Furthermore, on every job, Mordecai is forced to fight in order to establish his place in the hierarchy. Eventually, he becomes an itinerant peddler and meets and falls in love with a fiery young woman named Judith. Although his family doesn't approve of her, eventually Mordecai and Judith settle in Zemyock and raise a family. Finally, Mordecai is able to devote himself to religious study.
Their oldest son, Benjamin, doesn't seem to fit the bill as the next Just Man. He is skinny and small with a large head, unlike his three more robust younger brothers, and Mordecai fairly ignores him. A vicious pogrom forces Benjamin to leave Zemyock and move to Germany, where things seem much safer than in Eastern Europe. Ah, do you see the shadow of destiny falling? Benjamin becomes a tailor and eventually earns enough to bring his parents to live with him and soon his wife. Completely cowed by the headstrong Judith, Fraulein Leah Blumenthal is the mother to a large brood of children, yet remains naive and impotent of power.
And so we come to Ernie, neither the oldest or youngest, small and unassuming, but possessed of an undeniably sensitive soul. Nurtured and protected by his family, especially the patriarch Mordecai, Ernie nonetheless suffers from the growing Nazi presence in Stillenstadt. The story of his childhood is sweet and horrible and a window into the suffering of Jewish children in 1930's Germany. Ernie's innocence is gnawed away until he is only a shell filled with despair and hopelessness. As a young man he wanders, believing himself to be nothing more than the dog the Nazi's have labeled him. The story of his redemption in Paris and his ultimate fate, I will leave you to discover, but needless to say, as a Just Man, Ernie's destiny is not an easy one.
I loved the language of this book, although it is not an easy read emotionally. The author writes beautifully of the tortures of a sensitive soul, affinity with nature, the trials of childhood relationships, and the bleakness of losing your way in life. And arching over all of this, humanity, lies the Holocaust. It's as awful as you might imagine, but even worse is the idea you are left with. What if we have murdered the Last Just Man? To what brink have we brought ourselves spiritually, and is it possible to recover?
I read this novel in 1994 and was ripped as if by the throat and throttled violently.