Book review: Jacques Chessex's A Jew Must Die

This book review was published in the Financial Times

22 February 2010

A Jew Must Die, by Jacques Chessex (translated by W Donald Wilson, Bitter Lemon Press £6.99, 92 pages)
This short novel is one of the most powerful accounts of the horrors of anti-Semitism as it descended into mass Jew-killing. It is set not in a Nazi death camp but in peaceful, neutral Switzerland. The Swiss asked the Germans to put the infamous “J” for Jude (Jew) on the front of German passports so that Swiss frontier guards could know who were German tourists and who might be Jewish asylum-seekers. In the 1930s Davos was home to the biggest section of the Nazi party outside Germany.

The Goncourt prize­winner Jacques Chessex is one of the best-known Swiss novelists writing in French. The story is a true one. He grew up in the small French-Swiss town of Payerne. There, a group of xenophobic Swiss, egged on by a Jew-hating pastor, Philippe Lugrin, decided to anticipate the final victory of Nazism by killing a Jew just before Hitler’s birthday in April 1942. They chose a cattle dealer, Arthur Bloch, who came from Berne to the Payerne cattle market. The killing was sadistic and prompted by Bloch’s Jewishness and nothing else.

Well-translated by W Donald Wilson, the prose is taut, verbs and nouns in short bare sentences driving the story forward to its gruesome end. Chessex went to school with the children of the killers and met Pastor Lugrin by chance in Lausanne in the 1960s where the priest was still ranting about Jews.

Bloch’s grave stone carries the inscription Gott weiss warum: God knows why. This is Chessex’s only concession to the familiar trope of Holocaust literature: why a Jewish or Christian deity allowed it to happen. In fact, politics allowed it to happen.

Today’s anti-Semitism deniers dismiss the new Jew-hate as unimportant, or as an understandable response to Israeli excesses against Palestinians. Xenophobic politics is on the march again in Europe as the Swiss vote to ban Muslim religious architecture and the English elect MEPs from the anti-Semitic BNP. Disobliging remarks about Jews enter public discourse without much protest.

A belief in the existence of an all-powerful Jewish lobby wielding occult power took root in mid-century Europe. This novel spells out where such beliefs can lead. Of course it could not happen again. And then one reads the Hamas charter and questions begin.