The title is a shocker: A Jew Must Die. When the book first appeared in the mails, I thought that the small-scale paperback — so different in shape and design than most books I usually receive — might be some anti-Semitic tract, and that the title had been chosen to be purposefully scandalous, and to frighten and provoke. But the shock goes far deeper than that, and comes from the fact that this is fiction — yet unlike any fiction about the Holocaust that I've ever read.
The author is Jacques Chessex, hailed as one of Switzerland's finest writers, who won the Prix Goncourt — France's most prestigious literary award — for his 1973 novel L'ogre. A poet and essayist as well, he is also the winner of the French Literature Grand Prix of the Académie Française.
We are informed right at the start by the publisher, Bitter Lemon, out of London, that this is a novel based on a true story. The scene is Payerne, a small Swiss town, and the time is April 1942, several days before Hitler's birthday. A group of local Nazis has decided, as the title states, that a Jew must die. The death will be used as an example, to show the Swiss people that Nazism is bound to win– that it is, in fact, on the verge of success everywhere, and that this "representative" murder will demonstrate what the future will bring to the nation and to all of Europe once Hitler triumphs.
These Swiss fascists have chosen their victim with the utmost care, to prove their point beyond dispute. Arthur Bloch is a cattle merchant, one of the area's "filthy rich" Jews, in these Nazis' opinion, and like the other Jews clogging Switzerland, he is supposedly responsible for the economic misfortunes that have plagued the country during the 1930s and beyond. (Most of these Nazis, as might be expected, are unemployed, with little else to do but sit around and hunt for scapegoats.) In these men's minds, the Jews are sucking dry the true blood of the Swiss people. They consider Arthur Bloch to be representative, and so worthy of death.
The group plans to lure the businessman into a stable on the day that he traditionally goes to a livestock fair to bid on animals. They will kill him there, using iron bars, and then dispose of his body in as efficient a manner as possible.
What is most extraordinary about this book, aside from its unflinching depiction of hatred and its consequences, is that Chessex was a (non-Jewish) child in Payerne, and he knew the murderers, even sat next some of their children at school. I have read many memoirs about growing up Nazi or about discovering that one's parents were party members, but I don't think I have ever run across a work of Holocaust fiction that tries to imagine an actual event that the author had such close contact with. It gives the narrative, brief as it is, an extra charge. There is drama here and horror, as well as a sense of historical reckoning, which means looking collective guilt squarely in the eye.
Full Spectrum of Emotions
In a very small space — the entire novel runs less than 100 pages — Chessex manages to give us the full spectrum of emotions: humor, hatred, terror, pity, savagery all bound up in the story of this terrible murder of an innocent man. The author also manages, with swift strokes, to give us a wholly credible portrait of Nazis, and does it without a cliché in sight.
Chessex describes the leader of the hate group in this way: "In Payerne, in the Ischi brothers' garage opposite the Town Hall and the cool, mysterious deer park, the youngest of the brothers, Fernand Ischi, has been a member of the Swiss National Movement for the past several years. In Georges Oltramare of Geneva, this Fernand had found a thundering leader of the extreme right, a great beguiler, crafty tactician, unscrupulous orator, provocateur and troublemaker. Oltramare has one obsessive design: the victory of Nazi Germany, and then the extermination of the Swiss Jews. In Geneva, Fernand Ischi, an unskilled helper in the family garage and occasional repairer of bicycles and motorcycles, a ne'er-do-well exiled from the town of his birth, has followed this Nazi kingpin Georges Oltramare from meeting to meeting and has fallen under his spell. …
"From the age of 16, after leaving school, where he was an average student, inspired only by gym class, Fernand Ischi has been entranced by Germany, Hitler's seizure of power, the rise of Nazism and its violence. In 1936, during the Berlin Olympics, he saw Leni Riefenstahl's films in Geneva cinemas and developed a passion for the hard, clear propaganda ideal: the beauty of the Aryan physiques, the banners, the nudity, the blond hair, the fanfares of Gothic trumpets, the blue eyes gazing up into the Fuhrer's ecstatic gaze … Fernand Ischi is a mass of yearning and solitude. The blinkered mentality of his native town."
Ischi and his followers meet and consider a number of possible victims before settling on the devout, well-to-do Bloch, from Berne, "well known to the farmers and butchers throughout the area, making him an obvious and exemplary victim." They will strike at the next livestock fair in Payerne, set for Thursday, April 16.
I will spare you any quotations from the grisly murder scene, which is done with extreme writerly care (in the sense of wishing to be faithful to the truth). This means that it's a stark and difficult read, but not one iota of it is meant to be sensationalistic. This is a murder examined in its terrible reality so that the writer can demonstrate fully how hatred and twisted ideas can lead to barbaric ends.
Another astounding factor in Chessex's novel is what he transcribes after the deed has been done: a short chapter that sums up the matter of national guilt, of how a people consider a crime that indicts them all in some way. Then, even more shocking, the author steps in to consider the matter in the opening portion of the very next chapter.
'A Loathsome Story'
"What is horror?" he asks. "When the philosopher Jankélévitch proclaims the entire crime of the Holocaust to be 'imprescriptible,' he forbids me to speak of it exempt from that edict. Imprescriptible. That can never be forgiven. That can never be paid for. Nor forgotten. Nor benefit from any statute of limitations. No possible redemption of any kind. Absolute evil, for which there can be no absolution ever.
"I am telling a loathsome story, and feel ashamed to write a word of it. I feel ashamed to report what was said: words, a tone of voice, deeds that are not mine but that I make mine, like it or not, when I write. For Vladimir Jankélévitch also says that complicity is cunning and that repeating the slightest anti-Semitic sentiment or deriving some amusement or caricature from it, or putting it to some aesthetic purpose, is already, in itself, inadmissable. He is right. Yet it is not wrong of me, having been born in Payerne and spent my childhood there, to explore events that have never ceased to poison my memory and left me ever since with an irrational sense of sin.
"I was eight years old when these events took place. In high school I sat next to Fernand Ischi's eldest daughter. The son of the officer commanding the police station who arrested Ischi was a pupil in that same class. So was the son of Judge Caprez, who would preside over the trial of Arthur Bloch's murderers. My father was principal of the high school and the Payerne elementary schools; since Ballotte [one of the fascist gang] had been a pupil of his, he was interviewed as a witness during the preparations for the trial. He was President of the Cercle de la Reine Berthe, a democratic, violently anti-Nazi club, and was himself on the list of future victims of the garage gang … ."
There are only 10 pages or so left to the book after this startling news is delivered, but they are filled with additional shocks and insights into a warped form of group mentality, and only add to the memorable — though necessarily queasy — quality that marks A Jew Must Die.