Walking stick always at hand

A new translation of the insights of a non-Jewish reporter in 1929 provides a rare backdrop to the Holocaust.

A man wandering around the snow (photo credit: Courtesy)
A man wandering around the snow
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 It is 1929. The clock is ticking toward the destruction of European Jewry and the resurrection of the Jewish homeland. Among the few who hear that ticking is French investigative reporter Albert Londres, a non-Jewish “passionate chronicler of human suffering.”
Londres travels to Jewish communities in London, Eastern Europe and Palestine to better understand the “Jewish condition” and the Zionist movement.
His findings were serialized in Le Petit Parisien and published in book form in French, Hebrew and, eventually, English, though this translation, The Wandering Jew Has Arrived, is brand new.
And it is quite a gem.
In her preface, translator Helga Abraham compares Londres to Mark Twain and George Orwell. I would add Tuvia Tenenbom (Catch the Jew!) to that list.
Like Tenenbom, Londres has an innate knack for getting to the heart of interviewees and adding sage insights.
On his first stop in London’s East End, as he follows a Galician rabbi collecting alms, Londres quickly recognizes the “dual loyalty” reality of local Jews.
“Fidelity to their origins is one of the attractive features of this tragic people.
English? Yes, they are proud of it.… Yet, in their imaginations, the ancient Hebrew soil is always soft under their feet.”
He visits a Talmud Torah where 600 boys sit in classes “squashed like dates in a box” because “Jews have never had a lot of room. Nations ration them land.”
What he saw in London would not compare to the abject poverty of wallet and hope that he was to witness in Eastern Europe. Summing up the attitude toward Jews in that region, Londres writes: “They believe that Abraham’s descendants should remain in the same spot where Job liked to sit.”
In one fetid shtetl after another, Londres chronicles the Job-like suffering of Jews possessing no more than rags in which to wrap their children’s hands against sub-zero temperatures. Adding to their daily worry over finding a crust to eat was the constant fear of pogroms.
On the Sabbath, however, “The concern for their safety temporarily lay dormant in the hearts of these souls, grouped, that night, at the foot of the throne of the Eternal,” Londres observes.
The Wandering Jew of the title was someone Londres saw walking in the snowy Carpathians who well personified the Eastern European Jew, wearing hole-ridden boots, a long caftan and a hat from which protruded “two well-tended sidelocks.” A fabric pouch slung over his shoulder contained pencils, candles, scissors, a calendar, cigarette- butt tobacco, onions, plums, two frozen herrings and a piece of halla wrapped in paper.
Londres assumed the man was walking toward Jerusalem. But the Wandering Jew was simply seeking donations to feed his five children. The time has not come to return to the Holy Land, he quotes his rebbe as saying.
Londres could not comprehend why Zionism was feared and disdained among these tormented Jews, rather than embraced as their last hope.
“Palestine tempts only the young. The nightmare goes on,” he writes.
This is not to say he is disrespectful of their religiosity. In a “rabbi factory” in the Warsaw ghetto he describes the 16- hour rigors of study as “not at all ridiculous but very beautiful, moving, imbued with majesty and as respectable as madness.”
An apostate Jew who accompanies Londres on many of his travels explains: “Religious Jews wait for the Messiah. Assimilated Jews become lords in England or deputies in France. The Zionists are living out their dream. But we, the deserters of the ghetto? We are the real wandering Jews... A people such as ours must have its walking stick always at hand, for the laws of its host countries can become so harsh that it is regularly forced to move elsewhere.”
Arriving by boat in Tel Aviv, Londres finds “new Jews” whose “backbones have straightened and thrown off the invisible burden of its race,” speaking Hebrew and working as dentists, doctors, lawyers and hairdressers.
He presciently predicts worsening animosity between these returning Jews and the resident Arabs. He also predicts that Russian Jews would be massacred. “The Aryan pack will bare its fangs,” he writes, without knowing how that racial designation would be appropriated by the Germans. And he does not foresee the danger for Western Europe’s Jews.
“If the world consisted solely of France or America, Germany or England, Zionism would not exist,” he writes. “The Jews of the Atlantic have ceased being Jews of Zion... Let us, therefore, situate the Jewish question where it truly lies: in Poland, Russia, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. That’s where the Wandering Jew wanders.”
Londres died in 1932 on his way home from reporting on Chinese-Japanese hostilities in Shanghai. He did not live to see how the “Jewish question” was dealt with. But the savvy volume he left behind provides a rare backdrop to the Holocaust awaiting European Jews who wandered and even those who did not. 