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a jew must die

8 december 2010

A Jew Must Die, by Swiss writer Jacques Chessex, starts by trying to imagine anti-Semitism, writing its way into the tone and the fixations of Swiss Nazi-sympathizers during the second World War. But to try to imagine such absolutely repulsive attitudes brings Chessex up against a paradox of Holocaust fiction.

Vladimir Jankélévitch . . . 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, inadmissible. He is right. (79-80)
At the same time, the Holocaust must not be forgotten. And how can one remember something without representing it?

Chessex represents a tiny corner of the Holocaust: the death of a single Swiss Jew, Arthur Bloch. One associates Switzerland with refuge from Nazism; Swiss complicity in the Holocaust, though elaborate, was financial, not paramilitary. But Switzerland, like all neutral countries during the war, had its dark-shirted sympathizers with Hitler. And one gang of them murdered Bloch, a genial cattle-dealer, in a provincial town on a market day in April 1942.

I'm not sure how far Chessex has fictionalized this narrative of Bloch's murder. The story is presented as true – as taking place in the narrator's home town, with several of the characters his friends and acquaintances, or at least parents of friends. (Chessex, born in 1934, was eight when Bloch was murdered.) There are no framing texts or disclaimers in W. Donald Wilson's translation. The reticence of the novella is all the more interesting. Its tone ranges from a tried-on identification with anti-Semitism (which must be read ironically), to a matter-of-fact depiction of the murder, to an eloquent philosophical coda on the nature of evil.

Gott weiss warum, Bloch's widow wrote on his grave. As Chessex puts it, an "ironic expression of her confidence in, and distrust of, the Almighty's decisions" (90). The central, inescapable problem of faith is the presence of hideous evil in the world. God is both comforter and afflicter, and nobody knows why that is. Chessex leaves the problem poised on the knife-edge of ambivalent language.

Chessex, Jacques. A Jew Must Die. [Un Juif pour l'exemple, 2009.] Translated by W. Donald Wilson. London: Bitter Lemon, 2010.