I heard about this book in a kind of roundabout way. Richard Holloway had given a reading at Dalmuir Library and this was one of the books he said he re-read every few years. Well, that was good enough for me. I finally got around to reading The Last of the Just and was not disappointed.
Where is God? That is the question this book asks. In the final chapter, the narrator of the biography of Ernie Levy, the last of the just men, is in a sealed freight car travelling from Drancy to Auschwitz. He cradles a living corpse the body a young boy. A fellow passenger, a doctor, who is doing her best to relief the suffering of the children digs her fingernails into Ernie’s flesh and tells him the child is dead. He rocks the child’s body, insists the child is merely sleeping.
‘Madame,’ he said finally, ‘there is no room for truth here.’
Where is God? March 11, 1185 in the old Anglican city if York, Bishop William of Nordhouse sermonises and shouts to the mob below: ‘God’s will be done’. Mobs have arms and legs and one voice and what has become, through the ages, a familiar refrain: Kill the Jews.
Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, one of the Just Men, gathered his followers and urges them to commit suicide: ‘God gave us life. Let us return to him by our own hands…’
Familiar lamentations. ‘ “When an unknown Just [Man] rises to heaven,” a Hasidic story goes “he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise.”’
Is God a lullaby? Prayer books and Talmudic texts littered the Levy house in Stillenstadt. The infant Ernie learns his prayer at the feet of his ancient grandfather and Just Man, Mordecai, who has fled the pogroms in Zemyock, and followed his son, Benjamin, into the safety of Germany, Nazi Germany. There is no telling on which male child God will bestow his blessing and consolation of becoming a Just Man. He works in mysterious ways.
Is God a dream? Ernie seems to think so. The delicate little blonde girl, Fraulein Ilse, his classmate, who looks like a picture of a medieval princess, he gets to kiss and kisses him back. A Judas kiss.
Does God stand outside Drancy? Paris offers respite and God seems to be smiling on the Levy’s. Nazi Germany has been left behind. Even Grandfather Mordecai finds work and they have enough to eat and the French pastries are to die for. But Nazi Germany follows the Levy’s to Paris. Ernie a Jewish German joins a foreign division of the French army to fight against Germany, the country of his birth. He is one of the few survivors. God, he believes, has given him more lives than a cat. For a time, he imagines himself a dog and eats only raw meat. His marriage to Golda lasts but one night. He presents himself at the gates of Drancy, as a Jew, demanding entry. His love has no end.
Does God exist? Ernie cradles Golda’s broken body in the boxcar on the way to the concentration camp. His voice is a consolation to the children and his fabulous tales of the kingdom that will come, a balm to their spirit. When Doctor Mengele tries to send him right, he corrects the medic, he will go left with the broken and the old and those who do not want to die and demand the lie that the shower heads contain water. ‘Breathe it in,’ Ernie tells them. The last of the Just does not need to know that God exists, he needs to know suffering exists and he too must endure it and be broken too.