It is impossible to begin reading Jacques Chessex’s slim novel, A Jew Must Die without knowing what will happen in its climactic scene.
The original French title, Un Juif pour l’exemple, leaves something to the imagination. But for the English translation, published in 2009, the book’s cover is inscribed with the phrases “1942, Switzerland, a Nazi plot… A novel based on a true story.”
The book’s inner flap fills the reader in further, listing the place and time when “Arthur Bloch, a Jewish cattle merchant” from the borderlands shared by Switzerland and France is lured to a stable by Swiss Nazis and murdered.
When the murder scene does occur, it is drawn out over a page or two, making use of a certain cinematic suspense, yet the event itself, carried out as planned, is swift, violent and unsurprising.
Chessex won the major French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for his 1973 novel, The Ogre. He is a major figure in Europe, having published numerous novels, volumes of poetry and children’s books. His death in 2009, preceded by a collapse before a Swiss audience, had its own touch of the grotesque, reminiscent of the author’s fictional work. Reports of Chessex’s demise included the detail that just before he collapsed he had been asked to comment on the arrest by Swiss police of the film director Roman Polanski.
The events that Chessex documents and fictionalizes in A Jew Must Die take place in Payerne, the town where he was born and raised. There are passages in the novel where he conveys the Swiss landscape’s vernal loveliness, its “idyllic radiance” in early spring. And the particularity of its local economy is brought home, too, in a scene set at “seven o’clock” as the farmers tether “their beasts on Market Square to the wide metal railings that clank whenever the cows, bullocks and bulls pull on their halters and chains.”
The killers are a haphazard group – know-nothing farmhands directed by a Swiss Nazi who pronounces a “Heil Hitler!” after kicking the dead man’s corpse. In the leader one senses cravenness; in the followers a kind of lunkish carelessness. Behind their crime lies the influential motivation of a pastor whom the author presents, near the end of the novel, as an unreconstructed anti-Semite.
The Missing Person newspaper announcement placed by the victim’s family is moving in its simplicity, and Chessex describes the local response as, at first, “coarse jokes and loaded comments about “‘Jewry,’‘profiteering’ and ‘parasitic’ business.” When A Jew Must Die appeared, reviews made claims for the importance of its philosophical views on evil, complicity and human nature. And certainly these are the kinds of themes one expects to be explored in literature that confronts the events of the war.
In a collection of memoiristic stories published shortly after the end of World War II, the Polish author Tadeusz Borowski, who spent a year at Auschwitz, wrote: “Observe in what an original world we are living: how many men can you find in Europe who have never killed; or whom somebody does not wish to kill?” Borowski’s dark view of Europe seems to underwrite Chessex’s. But A Jew Must Die lacks the detail, the ironic voice and the sympathies of Borowski’s great postwar stories.
Part of Chessex’s motivation in the telling of his hometown’s history is the desire to convey how intimately the sense of guilt over the murder became a part of his and the town’s imaginative life. It may be guilt that motivates the strangely emotional concluding scene, set in a Berne Jewish cemetery, which offers “a moment of grace detached from a world where Aryan rule is bloodily imposed.” Still, the author’s effort at coming to terms with the war’s victims races out of control, as he compares the Holocaust to “Golgotha,” and invokes the “crown of thorns and the barbed wire of the camps.” Clearly a personal cry, A Jew Must Die presents itself as one of the stranger books about the war published by a major author in recent years.
Norman Ravvin is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His books include the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish and A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory.