Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008)
The Unseen Writing on the Wall
Le Juif Errant est arrivé (The Wandering Jew Is Home), by Albert Londres, Edition Motifs, 2007, repr., 296 pp.
Reviewed by Michelle Mazel
“Now a specter bars our way. It is not white but red. It is on the prowl in Transylvania, in Bessarabia, in the Ukraine. Without that specter one cannot understand the frightened glance of the Jews of that part of Europe, their fearful attitude, their bowed backs…. The name of that specter is pogrom.”
The year is 1929. The man who writes these lines is a non-Jewish French journalist, Albert Londres. Forty-five years old, he is at the height of his reputation. He had depicted the hellish French penal colony in Cayenne so vividly that it led to the place being eventually closed down. After meetings with Gandhi he had reported on rising Indian nationalism; he had described the chaos that was China with its warlords and endless civil wars.
He had a great sense of humor but, above all, he had what one would be called a social conscience, a deep concern for the plight of unfortunates wherever they were. Thus he wrote about the excesses of French colonial policy in Africa, the trafficking of women in Argentina and its French connection, the horrors of insane asylums. His reports, written for the popular French daily Le Petit Parisien, were compiled into books that became instant bestsellers.
Nowadays it is often forgotten that investigative journalism is well into its second century. Before the advent of airplanes, mobile phones, the Internet, and satellite television, reporters traveled to the ends of the earth to convey exotic stories and the flavor of distant countries. Albert Londres was one of these.
“A pogrom,” he explains, “is a kind of rabies. It does not affect animals but only men, especially soldiers and students…. How do they get it? It is believed so far that it is through their governments…. Those affected do not bite everyone. It’s only the Jews who irritate their teeth. They are electrified at the sight of caftans, beards and sidelocks” (106).
He goes on to suggest the scope of the phenomenon: “150,000 killed, 300,000 wounded-more than one million beaten and robbed in the Ukraine and in Galicia for the years 1918 and 1919 alone. When one studies them more closely, one sees that pogroms come in three different guises: bloody, bloodless and cruel and sadistic” (107).
The reissue in France of Le Juif Errant est arrivé is a timely reminder of the events that preceded and indeed paved the way to the Holocaust. First published in 1929, it was the product of Londres’s study over several months of the condition of the Jews in Eastern Europe.
A World of Privation
As the title indicates, Londres was primarily interested in researching what was then an interesting new phenomenon: the emergence of a Jewish nation in Palestine following the Balfour Declaration. He considered, however, that before embarking for the Holy Land he had to see what was happening to the Jews in Europe. Soon he became sidetracked by what was supposed to be a mere prologue and ended up devoting two-thirds of his report to the impending tragedy in Eastern Europe.
His first step was to research the history of the Jewish people from Abraham to the present, and he recounts this story fairly creditably in one of the opening chapters. He attributes the beginning of European persecution and ostracism of the Jews to the rule of Emperor Charlemagne, who had determined to make Europe entirely Christian. From then on, writes Londres, the weight of the cross crushed the Jews, prohibiting them from most professions, pushing them into ghettoes, and making them ready scapegoats whenever a natural catastrophe befell the country they lived in.
“Then came the French Revolution. France taught the world that the Jew is a man and not some forked devil. Europe, however, is made of walls. The news could not penetrate them all. It barely made it to Vienna. And so European Jewry was divided. With those of the West, our Jews, you are familiar. Let us go see the others!” (62).
Taking along “Ben and Salomon,” two French-speaking Jews he picked up at the beginning of his tour, Londres set off on his quest. His companions were his interpreters. “They are both frighteningly clever,” he remarks, “and they speak Russian, Czech, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, English, Italian, Spanish, German, French, Yiddish, and Hebrew.” They introduce him to the closed world of the subjects of his study. Fascinatingly, Jewish life emerges through the eyes of an outsider.
Londres observes but does not judge. The forgotten world of East European Jewry springs back to life, a world of people desperately trying to subsist but never losing hope. Comes Shabbat, marvels the Frenchman, and “In Lithuania, in Bessarabia, in Bukovina, in Galicia, in Maramureş, every week on the same day, at the same hour, Israel, be it Polish, Russian, Romanian, Hungarian, Czechoslovak, may be dispersed but remains one” (124).
There are even some comic moments: Londres’s visit to an apartment building in Nalewki, the Jewish part of Warsaw, where he accompanied a tax collector in his endeavor to get the tenants to pay, is pure vaudeville. But such moments are few. The new borders that emerged after World War I now divide what used to be one great Jewish world and prevent former neighbors, friends, and family members from meeting. The further east one goes, the more abysmal the poverty, severe the oppression, and unbearable the suffering. Londres’s description of the Lvov ghetto is appalling. He tells of wretched families, starving and in rags, living in subhuman conditions near open sewers in darnk basements. “The two Jews who were with me were crying, and in the evenings, though they agreed to sit at my table, were unable to eat” (154).
No wonder many are seeking to flee. In Czernowitz, a landlocked city in Bukovina, Londres is surprised to see all major European shipping companies represented-and the long queues of people dreaming of a happier life in America, Brazil, or Argentina. What about Palestine? Londres tells of his encounter in Kishinev (Moldova) with one Alter Fisher, “a halutz, a pioneer from Palestine,” who proudly exhibits his passport. A survivor of the Zhitomir (Ukraine) pogrom, Fisher made his way to Palestine and is now back in Europe to try and convince other Jews to follow him-but with little success. “They will all be slaughtered,” he laments….
It is clear from what Londres writes that the West was aware of what was happening in Eastern Europe-the pogroms, the terrible poverty and oppression. It is equally clear that nobody was prepared to do anything about it, not even the Jews who had made a new life for themselves in America, England, or even in France, though they gave money to the bearded rabbis who come looking for alms to take back to their wretched flock.
New Jews in Tel Aviv
There can be no greater contrast to that dismal picture than that of the sun shining in Tel Aviv on a new breed of Jews: clean-shaven, bareheaded, and striding confidently in a city where all inhabitants are Jews. Londres can now give free rein to his sense of humor and observe this new world with delight. So many barbers! So many dentists! So many lawyers! “You are forty thousand citizens in Tel Aviv, forty thousand Jews without a single goy, and you need so many lawyers?”(220). Later, while praising the generosity of those who made the dream possible, he adds: “Palestine has known prophets, judges, brave men and kings but only one baron. Just as there is only one Duce in Italy. The baron of Palestine is Mr. Edmond de Rothschild. He is the only man on earth who owns a colony. This is far classier than owning a stable of racehorses!”(225).
On a more serious note, Londres, who had met Jabotinsky and Nashashibi, then mayor of Jerusalem, feels the conflicting depths of Jewish determination and Arab hatred.
While Londres was back in Paris, putting the last touches on his account, a friend rushed into his office and said, “They are killing your Jews in Jerusalem!” Leaving his work still unfinished, Londres hastily returned to Palestine, wondering why the Jews there had had to tell everyone of their aim to bring in tens of thousands of immigrants and hence prompt the Arabs to act now, before it was too late. He was surprised, however, to find that the Jews did not flee but stood their ground.
This book should be compulsory reading in high schools throughout the world. It is not enough to teach the Holocaust; youngsters must also be aware of what preceded it and made it possible.
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MICHELLE MAZEL is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Faculté de Droit of that city.