If you’ve always longed to read a book capturing that very special moment in history when the European Diaspora still was the Jewish people, even as the state of Israel was looming on the far horizon—a book explaining, from within, that moment of incipient transition into two Jewish identities—it has existed since 1930. The problem is that it was written in French, and by a Gentile at that, and for decades nobody bothered introducing it to the English-speaking public.
But now the situation has been rectified. Albert Londres’ masterpiece, The Wandering Jew Has Arrived, has recently been published in a superb translation by Helga Abraham, an Egyptian-born graduate of Edinburgh University who now lives in Jerusalem. In her foreword, Abraham goes so far as to compare Londres with “such great documentarians as Mark Twain and George Orwell.” I couldn’t agree more.
In his French homeland, Londres remains to this day a national icon, whose name graces the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. He was born in 1884 in Vichy—then famous as an elegant health resort—to a working-class family; his father was a tinker, his grandfather a peddler. Thanks to the free, high-quality education network set up by the Third Republic, he was able to attend high school and thereafter dabbled in poetry and theater before settling on journalism at Le Matin, one of the country’s leading newspapers.
In 1914, at the age of thirty, Londres was found “too frail” for active military service and instead became a war correspondent, achieving instant celebrity with his eyewitness report on the Germans’ September 1914 bombing and burning of the Reims cathedral. Switching to Le Petit Journal, another top-selling paper, he covered the more exotic but no less horrendous fighting in Serbia, Greece, Albania, and Turkey.
After the war, now with Excelsior and finally Le Petit Parisien, he covered every hot spot in the world: Italy on the verge of turning fascist, Russia right after the Soviet takeover, Japan caught between the westernizing Meijis and military dictatorship, chaotic post-imperial China, Gandhi’s India, the Sahara, West Africa, French Guyana, Argentina, the Balkans again, China again. By then the highest paid journalist in France, he was the consummate professional and, frail or not, hardly rested even when back at home.
Some journalists are good at spotting things. Others know how best to relate what they have seen. Still others are adept at interpretation. Londres was all of these and more: he was a fearless investigator. In a world still dominated by the written word, he also made full use of the rhetorical and dramatic techniques inherited from the great 19th-century realist novelists: people would wait for his daily dispatches the way today’s millennials look forward to new episodes of Game of Thrones, and would buy and read them again when issued as books in modified or expanded versions.
At the same time, he never forgot the moral angle. An early critic of Bolshevism, he was also an implacable prosecutor of colonialism, white slavery, the French penitentiary colonies in Africa and Guyana, sport as business, the barbarity of mental institutions. And more often than not, his writings were the catalyst of reform.
In the 1970s, Londres’ books were republished and have stayed on the French best-seller lists ever since. All bones and muscle, and no fat, they have not aged a day. Still, whatever reading pleasure they may provide, and whatever significance they retain as templates of superior journalism, they deal primarily with matters of the past. China as we know it today is an altogether different planet from Londres’ China; long gone, thanks in part to his whistleblowing, are the penal colonies and squalid mental hospitals described in his writings.
Not so, however, The Wandering Jew Has Arrived, whose main subjects—the Jewish people’s struggle for survival and the Jewish-Arab dispute in the Holy Land—are still very much in the news. This is unquestionably a book from the past; but it is also, in many ways, a book about the present.
As a “concerned journalist” in the 1920s, Albert Londres could not ignore what was then known as the “Jewish question.” In the 19th and early 20th century, Jews had experienced a phenomenal demographic growth, from about three million around 1800 to about fifteen million by 1925. Many had also climbed the social ladder, especially in the new niches created by the first and second industrial revolutions. But anti-Semitism had grown right alongside, and followed them everywhere.
For the anti-Semite, Londres wrote tersely, “the Jewish passerby is stealing his air.” Accordingly, anti-Semitism involved not just exclusion or discrimination or forced conversion, but death:
Now, a specter is barring the way. . . . The specter is called pogrom. . . . It is a form of rabies. It does not affect animals, only particularly soldiers and students. . . . It is believed to be passed on by governments. Governments that look to the West are not affected by that virus. Those that look to the East have it in their veins.
Londres collected dates, data, personalities, and testimonies. “The first pogroms occurred in 1881-1882 . . . across 28 provinces of Old Russia.” Then came the pogroms of 1903-1907 in Russia, including most notoriously in Kishinev, and then “the great pogrom of 1918-1920 in Ukraine and eastern Galicia. Then December 1927 in Rumania.” The human cost? “More than 150,000 killed. More than 300,000 wounded. More than one million beaten and pillaged.” He does not shrink from details of the worst Cossack brutalities in the Ukraine:
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They cut off tongues and gouge eyes. They force mothers to hold out their children to them and decapitate the little victims. They undress the men, make them hold hands, order them to sing and dance, then: “Fire!’
When these lines were published, some of Londres’ readers expressed amazement at the numbers and the gory details. Retrospectively, we recognize the events as dress rehearsals for what was to come soon enough.
In fact, few people in the 1920s denied that anti-Semitism was rampant and that it led, time and again, to atrocities. But why such hatred of Jews? A common answer was that Jews had a surfeit of shortcomings: many were economic parasites, many had failed to “assimilate” into the nations that were “hosting” them, many supported Bolshevism. Even some Jews agreed with such charges, at least to a point, usually pointing to their own people’s “backwardness” and/or the nefarious influence of archaic rabbis.
What is quite remarkable about Londres, and further evidence of both his sharp mind and his moral character, is that he brushed aside these excuses: “The fundamental cause of pogroms is the loathing of Jews. Then come the pretexts.” To the contrary, Londres considered Jews—all of them—to be great exemplars of humanity, and insisted they were right to keep their own religion and culture because it was grounded, so he perceived, in optimism and love of life.
In the wake of the 1927 Rumanian pogroms, Londres undertook a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East to explore the “Jewish question” and to consider its “solution”: namely, Zionism. In his mind, the two issues intermingled.
He started from London. Many traditional East European Jews lived there, especially in the impoverished East End. There were also many upper-class, assimilated Jews in the West End: bankers, intellectuals, hereditary peers, members of the British cabinet. But London was above all the capital city of the United Kingdom and the British Empire, which had issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and since 1922 held the mandate of the Jewish national home in Palestine. Also, the World Zionist Organization was headquartered in London.
So Londres visited London’s various Jewish neighborhoods, ate at kosher restaurants in Whitechapel, attended services in synagogues, met with Anglicized families—and in many places found portraits of King George V, Lord Balfour, and Theodor Herzl. “It would be no more worthy of me to deny [the Jewish people] than to be ungrateful toward England,” an old Lithuanian-born Jew tells him. “You are a Zionist?” Londres asks, and the old man replies: “I am for everything that can lighten the suffering I experienced in my childhood. When one has managed to climb out of a ditch, one must not cut the ropes than can help others.” As against this, he also met Orthodox rabbis in London who had little time or patience for Zionism: “Mr. Balfour is a lord,” one of them tells Londres, “not a messiah.”
Departing London, Londres then made for Central and Eastern Europe, until 1939 the very heart of the Jewish world. Five million Jews lived in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and the Baltic states, and two million more in the USSR: teeming, Yiddish-speaking communities, cities where half the population was Jewish, shtetls scattered all over the countryside.
Whereas British Jews—or French Jews for that matter—were “Israelites,” that is, Brits or French “of the Mosaic persuasion,” Central and Eastern European Jews were “Hebrews,” a nation unto itself. “The monarchs of the day had barricaded them together” in ghettos since the 16th century; here, in “their refuge, they reconstructed, in thousands of fragments, the homeland they had lost at a time when the Christian era was barely one-hundred years old.”
Many of these Hebrews lived in abject poverty. The Marmarosh mountains, then the easternmost part of an otherwise thriving and liberal Czechoslovakia, made up “a country of hunger.” Visiting in the middle of winter, he found the area “mummified by snow and cold.” When the Jews emerged, he beheld
the craziest assortment of heads that shoulders have ever borne! Neptunes, patriarchs, Rembrandts, goats, young and old vultures, thoroughbred horses, and Raphaels! . . . One side of the rabbi’s house had disappeared with the wind. Inside, two sheep, two small children, five bigger ones already sporting sidelocks, a skeletal woman, a cageless black bird shivering on the back of a chair. The rabbi was absent. He had gone to Rumania—to beg. If he did not return tomorrow, there would be no white bread for Shabbat. . . . In order to shiver less from the cold, the children shivered with holiness over the Talmud.
Further north, in Poland, the Lwow ghetto presented overpacked houses along narrow alleys and courtyards:
Synagogue Street, no.1: nine families of five to eight children, crying of cold and hunger and rotting on the foulest of dung heaps. No. 2: ditto. No. 3, No. 4: on both sides of the street, all the way down, ditto. . . . On the first day, I had to rush out of these doghouses in order to overcome the nausea caused by the smell. For the same reason, I had to rush out on the second day and twice on the third day.
Warsaw, the “Jewish queen of Europe,” was different. With 360,000 Jewish inhabitants, the community had reached critical mass. Harsh anti-Semitic policies barred Jews from most government, army, and university positions, and even menial jobs “on railways or trams, in post offices, in salt mines. . . . Only one Jewish postman has remained, of late, in the employment of the state.”
Still, Warsaw Hebrews did not share the fatalism of the Jews in the Marmarosh or in Lwow, but were eager to work, trade, and strive at any cost. On Nalewki Street, in the middle of Jewish Warsaw, Londres was constantly jostled “by Jews rushing from one place to another, darting around, undisciplined, possessed by a frenetic demon . . . crying handl, handl (for sale, for sale!).” Many had in fact achieved some success in business, not just in the rowdy streets but also in the well-furbished, American-style companies and factories they had created: Poland’s “three-and-a-half million Jews,” he reported, “out of a total population of more than 30 million, pay 40 percent of the nation’s taxes.”
And yet on Friday afternoon, toward sunset, “the great Sabbath curtain descends on the metropolis. Everything is deserted.” And then suddenly,
while the woman prepares the Sabbath table, brings out the white tablecloth and places candles in the candelabrum, [the streets] come alive again. The men, books under their arms, holding their sons’ hands, make their way to the synagogues and houses of prayer. Houses of prayer are as numerous in Nalewki as bathhouses in Japan and bars in France!
Londres’ book reminds us, indeed, that in spite of growing secularization, especially among the rich and the young, most pre-Holocaust Jews in Poland were still fairly religious (much more so, at any rate, than, in later years, secular New York intellectuals or fans of Fiddler on the Roof were ready to admit).
Londres was so impressed by Orthodox religiosity in Eastern Europe that he devoted several chapters to it. “The Rabbi Factory,” for instance, is a thorough description of yeshivah life. “The Miracle-Making Rabbi” is about ḥasidic leaders and their courts, including the Gerer rebbe whom he visited in Gora-Kawalria, a Warsaw suburb. And while perfectly aware of Orthodox opposition to political Zionism, he couldn’t help constantly binding together Orthodoxy and Zionism as two sides, only temporarily disjoined, of the same authentic Jewish identity.
The next and final stage in Londres’ Jewish journey was Palestine. There he fell in love immediately with secular Tel Aviv, a city “with no crosses or minarets” and much charm:
None of those American grids. The streets, squares, boulevards, avenues, intersect whimsically. It is bright, spacious, sunny, and all white. It emanates a fierce determination to leave the ghetto behind. You almost expect to see all these Jews pitched on the pavement, mouths open, lovingly imbibing liberty.
Only a few years (or a mere two weeks) earlier, everybody around him had been a timid “Israelite” in London or Paris, or a starving Jew in the Marmarosh, or a bullied Jew in Warsaw. Now they were “free men,” and “pride had replaced shame.” A nation deemed “parasitic” had been reborn on its ancestral soil, complete with “dentists, hairdressers, lawyers, doctors,” as well as “bricklayers, road workers, shepherds, farm girls.” The new Hebrews “drained swamps, cleared rocks,” and everywhere “settlements followed settlements.” In the process, the men had shaved their beards, cut their side curls, and dropped their black caftans, and the women had shortened their skirts. But they had also resuscitated Hebrew itself “from the tomb of the Talmud” and turned it into an everyday language.
If this sounds like nothing so much as a Zionist fund-raising speech from the 1950s, bear in mind that Londres was one of the first outside observers to give a detailed account of what still amounted, in sheer statistical terms, to a very tiny miracle, involving 200,000 people at most. Nor was he blind to the geopolitical difficulties surrounding the Zionist utopia. Meeting Arabs of all stripes, he was repeatedly warned that they would never countenance the rise of a Jewish commonwealth in their midst. Rajib Nashashibi, then the Muslim Arab mayor of Jerusalem—a city in which already two out of every three inhabitants were Jewish—told him that Jews could take back Palestine for the price at which the Arabs had bought it: “the price of blood.”
Londres had just returned to Paris when he was told by a friend: “They are killing your Jews in Jerusalem.” The 1929 Arab riots had started—ostensibly to protest Jewish prayer at the Western Wall on the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction. They soon degenerated into pogroms, just like in Eastern Europe: in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and other places, 133 Jews were killed, often in the most sadistic way, and almost three times that number wounded or maimed.
Setting off to the Holy Land once again, Londres conducted a rigorous investigation and added two more chapters to his book. They still read today as the grimmest narrative of those events. They feature the first documented indictment of Amin el-Husseini, the British-appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem who was to become a Nazi supporter. But they also report individual acts of humanity and the courage of Muslim citizens or English policemen who rescued Jews and otherwise resisted the pogromists.
What is more, despite all the difficulties and the implacable anti-Semitism, Londres ends his book on an optimistic tone. He had no doubt that “the Wandering Jew” whom he had encountered at various places in Europe had indeed arrived home in Palestine, and that Zionism was not only a feasible solution to the travails of the Diaspora but the culmination of age-old messianic hopes.
In her foreword to The Wandering Jew Has Arrived, Helga Abraham ventures that Londres would be astonished by the “bobbing-up” of ḥaredi communities dressed in 18th-century Polish fashion in the 21st-century state of Israel. I’m not so sure. I tend to believe he would welcome this development as a vindication of his own deepest views concerning Judaism. Significantly, the title of one of the book’s closing chapters—a chapter on Zionism and its achievements—is: “The Joy of Being Jewish.” To me the phrase has an amazingly ḥasidic ring to it.