I recently finished reading Andre Schwarz-Bart’s novel, The Last of the Just. This book, first translated into English in 1960, is an agonizing tear in the fabric of life. It is a difficult, heart-breaking read, primarily occupied with the story of Ernie Levy and his journey through the terror of Nazi Germany.
I do not recommend reading this book. Schwarz-Bart portrays the most violent and vicious human behaviour imaginable. Yet, at the same time, anyone who desires to live authentically in the human community needs to read The Last of the Just. It is essential if we are to live honestly in the human community to confront the cruelty of which the human species is capable.
Every page I felt compelled to ask how human beings could do such atrocious things. Why should there be such pain in the world? How is it possible that people could inflict such untold ferocity on other people? What terror lurks in the depths of the human psyche that could enable one person to torture another without apparent remorse or concern?
At some point in the three hundred and seventy-four pages of this novel, I realized that “how” and “why” are the wrong questions. The only possible question in the face of the terror of which human beings are capable is how I choose to respond to the reality of violence.
In the mid-point of the novel, Mordecai explains to Ernie the role of the Just Man saying that, “He senses all the evil rampant on earth, and he takes it into his heart!” The world needs people willing to view the horror of human existence without turning away. To live justly in the midst of cruelty we must be willing to stand still and see clearly. We must be willing to bear the reality of pain in order for that pain to be transformed. We all have opportunities every day to see pain and to allow it to be transformed within our hearts.
Violence emerges from denial. Those who refuse to bear the reality of human suffering are doomed to repeat the cruelty and violence to which too much of human history bears witness. When we turn away from pain, we are doomed to fall into violence.
There is a deep and tragic irony to the fact that Nazi Germany’s execution and systematic genocide of European Jews during World War II was dubbed “The Final Solution.” When we are determined to “fix” things without having opened to the reality of the painful circumstances that have given rise to the chaos in which we so often live, we will always find solutions that inflict more pain.
I only encounter the full depths of what it means to be human, when I allow the pain of life, to break my heart open to the truth of the inescapable pain of being human.
The miracle of this book is that, after looking with an unflinching gaze at the worst behaviour of which human beings are capable, Schwarz-Bart ends his story in a place of hope.
Spoiler alert! Anyone who is going to read this novel should read no further in this post. But, for those who know they will never read the book, the final paragraph should not be missed.
After all of the pain and wrenching anguish that he portrays, the narrator steps forward from behind his narrative and says,
Yes, at times one’s heart could break in sorrow. But often too, preferably in the evening, I can’t help thinking that Ernie Levy, dead six million times, is still alive somewhere, I don’t know where… Yesterday, as I stood in the street trembling in despair, rooted to the spot, a drop of pity fell from above upon my face. But there was no breeze in the air, no cloud in the sky…. There was only a presence.
It is only by stopping in the midst of the pain and breathing in the agony of the world that our hearts open to that hidden “presence” that is the heart of all reality and the deep core of all existence. If I allow the pain of living to break my heart open, rather than choosing to harden and resist the pain, I will find the gentleness of this “presence” falling like pity from above upon our face.