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The Last of the Just, by André Schwarz-Bart

Discussion Guide

Introduction

Ernie Levy, last of the Just Men leaves this world clinging to his raw belief of a better world to come. According to modern Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the zaddikim (usually translated as the 'righteous') actually means "those who stood test" or "the proven." (from Tales of Hasidim, The Early Masters, Schocken Books, NY, 1961). The generations of the lamed vovnikim, the thirty-six righteous men of the Levy family carried the burden of Jewish suffering. Have we seen the last of the Just Men?

Chapter IThe Legend of the Just Man 

The sufferings of the Jewish people are a part of history that repeats itself generation after generation, and from one country to another. Briefly examine Jewish life from the time of the Crusaders. (An excellent source for this background is History of the Jewish People, Edited by H.H. Ben-Sasson, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA,1976.)

  1. How does the author define "Just Men?" How does his definition compare to the traditional Jewish understanding?
  2. How does the Jewish notion of "suffering servant" differ from the Christian idea, as embodied in Jesus?
  3. The Just Men are said to seem like other persons. What traits in the Levy line that define them aszaddikim?
  4. For many generations, the single male survivor of the Levy clan found himself wandering from country to country. Why was it a challenge for the Levy's to find a place to settle?

Chapter II: Zemyock

Chaim Levy breaks hundreds of years of the tradition of the wandering Levy's and settles in Zemyock, Poland. He creates havoc in the community by fathering more than one son, and dies of old age rather than suffering a martyr's death.

  1. Mordecai Levy (Ernie Levy's grandfather) leaves Zemyock to work for Polish farmers. How did his stature and self-confidence change the image of the "Jew"?
  2. Mordecai's love for Judith is burdened by family tradition. What family pressures can force us to question our beliefs or our heart's desires? In what ways do we compromise these beliefs, as Mordecai did?
  3. How did the forces of family tradition ultimately lead to the Levy family's suffering in Zemyock?
  4. One of Mordecai's sons, Benjamin is trained to be a tailor. How does Benjamin view his fathers' devotion to Judaism? In what ways could we describe the "new Jews" of today, if we were sent to the old Lamed Vovnick who Benjamin met at the time of his Bar Mitzvah?

Chapter III: Stillenstadt

Following the pogroms in Poland, Mordecai was perplexed and he "felt betrayed, but he could not have said whether by his own family or by God. His sons were dead and the Lamed Vovnick alive."

  1. Why did his father's feelings of betrayal aid in Benjamin's decision to leave Zemyock and eventually wander to the small town of Stillenstadt in Germany?
  2. How does Benjamin's redheaded Galician friend change Benjamin's belief and his fate? Consider a time when your understanding of the world was challenged by outside forces. How did you react? How did this change your life?
  3. In what situations do we find ourselves questioning our belief in God?
  4. Benjamin's parents were out of place in the assimilated Stillenstadt. How do Jews set themselves apart in America today?
  5. Benjamin's son Ernie becomes the target of childhood pranks and games. How is that different from expressions of antisemitism among youths today?

Chapter IV: The Just Man of the Flies

  1. Ernie follows his heart in the face of a Nazi raid and later discovers he is a Just Man. What kind of burden is placed on the child? Reflect upon a time when your parents placed too much responsibility upon you, or when you placed too much responsibility on your child. How did this effect you? How did you change the situation? What is the meaning of Jewish responsibility to Reform Jews? What role do your children have (or not have) in this responsibility?
  2. Ernie might be compared to the prophet Isaiah as he becomes aware of the awesome and mighty God. Why does Ernie call himself the Just Man of Flies? How does our understanding of Judaism help us to place our lives into perspective during difficult times?

Chapter V: Herr Kremer and Fraulein Ilse and Chapter VI -- The Dog 

The weight of antisemitism is inescapable in the later years of the 1930s. Ernie manages to stay in school due to a Righteous Gentile who believes in the rights of humankind. But prejudice seals their fate.

  1. In what ways could his family have helped Ernie ease his shock when both humankind and love failed him?
  2. Why do Ernie's characteristics of a Just Man help him to survive his suicidal attempt?
  3. Do you think Ernie's attempt to end his life was justified in accordance with the definition of a Just Man? How could his family have helped him?
  4. If Buber's definition of a Just Man is "those who stood test," how did Ernie's characteristics of a Just Man help him survive his suicidal attempt?
  5. How can Ernie's belief change and yet stay the same?
  6. On the eve of Kristalnacht, Ernie's family is faced with the reality that "there isn't a country in the world that wants us Jews! Would the systematic destruction of over six million Jews have occurred if there had been a Jewish State prior to World War II?
  7. Many Jews dreamed of a Jewish State and even planned its establishment long before Hitler came to power. The war from 1939-1945 shattered their expectations and almost destroyed a peoplehood. How did the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948 provide a partial victory over the Nazi final solution?
  8. Why did Ernie abandon his family and enlist in the French Army? Did his life as a "dog" help him come to grips with his identity as a Just Man?
  9. At times when we might feel compelled to to turn our backs on Judaism, what pulls us back to our belief or sense of belonging to a "people?" How did the blacksmith "see" that Ernie was Jewish?

Chapter VII: The Marriage of Ernie Levy

  1. The Just Man does not escape his destiny and returns to the ghetto in Paris. Why did he return? His grief is great upon learning of the fate of his family. In what ways does the human soul protect us from self-destruction?
  2. How did the Just Man bear his pain in the ghetto in relation to his past experiences? In what ways does he understand the suffering from his childhood?
  3. As the Jews of the ghetto await their fate, Ernie finds love. How is it still possible for him to draw such strength?
  4. Ernie looks for Golda in her apartment. The landlady tells him that all the Jews have been taken away. Ernie states prophetically, "Don't worry about it, Madame. All your Jews will be back. Besides, all the Jews everywhere will be back. All of them? and if they don't come back, you'll still have the Negroes, or the Algerians or the hunchbacks." In what way does Ernie's insight promise a better future of the Jewish people? Is the State of Israel an answer to some of these questions of prejudice? 

Chapter VIII: Never Again

  1. Ernie Levy follows Golda to the concentration camp of Drancy. In what ways do you think that Ernie found a way to believe in God again?
  2. Golda and Ernie find themselves serving as "parents" to the orphaned children being sent to Auschwitz. Why is this symbolic of the role of the Lamed Vovnick?
  3. On the train, Ernie is criticized for not telling the truth when he promises the children that they will arrive in the Kingdom of Israel. He replies, "there is no room for truth here." Did he tell the children the right thing?
  4. How do Ernie Levy's last words help us to understand his role as a Lamed Vovnick?
  5. Was Ernie Levy the Last of the Just? 
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