The journalist, one of the real figures on whom the cartoon Tintin was based, spent three days in the Lwow ghetto. What he saw overturns much that I thought I knew about the Holocaust. The Jews he observed in the pretty Polish city, now in Ukraine, were crammed into hell: “The life they live here is infernal. They all want to flee.”
The sons of Israel, walking vultures, wander day and night in the alleyways, as though searching for scraps. Their hands wrapped in pieces of cloth, black against the snow, heads hunched into their shoulders by the mallet of misery, thoughtful, idle, standing still for no reason, in the middle of squares like prophets without a voice and without listeners, they afforest this ghetto rather than animate it, with their tormented, cypress-like silhouettes.
The centre of the ghetto:
A market? A field of manure, yes! The rabbits, whose skins are on offer, appear to have been slaughtered with a machine gun. The furs are nothing more than a mass of hair.
Streets of misery:
On the first day, I had to rush out from one 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. The two Jews who accompanied me cried and, in the evening, they sat at my table but were unable to eat.
Here were families, their children “crying of cold and hunger and rotting on the foulest of dung heaps”. In one dark basement two small infants stand beside something:
The pallet seems to stir. We lower our candles. A woman is lying there. But in what is she lying? In wet shavings? In stable straw? I touch it; it is cold and sticky. What is covering the woman would have once been a quilt, but is now nothing more than a mush of feathers and cloth oozing damp like a wall. We notice two more heads in the mush, tiny tots, four months, fifteen months old. The oldest smiles at the flame, which we wave above them. The woman did not utter a word.
An elderly bearded man is also in the darkness:
if he is lame, it is because he was thrown out of the first-floor window. Since then, he has been unable to work his way back up again. He lives in the basement. We clutch our handkerchiefs over our noses with our teeth. The Jews show us the reason for the terrible stench. The neighbourhood’s main sewer passes through their home, through the homes of everyone on this street; more than three thousand Jews have been transformed into sewage cleaners, for it was not mud in which we were trudging.
What upsets my Holocaust ideas is that these are not Holocaust horrors, this is not wartime, it is 1929 and the Jewish ghetto exists in peacetime Poland:
They number eighty thousand against two hundred thousand Poles. If one accords to the word against its full meaning, it would be more correct to say that two hundred thousand Poles are against eighty thousand Jews.
The old man’s injuries, and the destroyed buildings in the ghetto, were caused during the 1918 pogrom—it was the year of which Adolf Hitler complained that in Germany “there was nothing like an organised anti-Semitic feeling”.
This review appears in December’s Quadrant.
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The Wandering Jew Has Arrived by Albert Londres is a new translation by Helga Abraham of Le Juif errant est arrivé, first published in France in 1930. The text is a collection of twenty-seven articles by Londres originally published in the mass-circulation newspaper Le Petit Parisien.
One of the great journalists of his time, of any time, Londres was born in 1884 and died in 1932 when the passenger ship taking him back to France, after carrying out a major and mysterious investigation in China, caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Aden. If he was writing now he would be called an investigative journalist. He wrote on prisons, colonial labour, prostitution and madness and is recognised as a source for Hergé’s cartoon character Tintin, whose first journalistic adventure, set in the Soviet Union, was published in January 1929; Londres’s own highly critical account of the Soviet Union had appeared in 1920. The Wandering Jew Has Arrived is his own “journey around the Jews” and he is a superb travelling companion whose own presence you feel on every page and in every skilfully crafted sentence.
This outstanding and very human classic of reportage begins when he is intrigued by “a bizarre personage” travelling with him on a Channel ferry to England. On the opening page is a tiny and accurate detail which leaps out at an Australian reader. He is describing suitcases piled up on the ferry deck: “Through the magic of their labels, the suitcases recounted their voyages.” Among the exotics, “A tiny one hailed from Brisbane with a stopover in Colombo.” From the luggage he moves to his equally magic human quarry:
There was nothing white about him except his socks—everything else was solid black. His felt hat, which in better times must have been hard, was somewhat limp. Nonetheless, this headgear represented the sole European feature of his wardrobe. A long, unbuttoned frock coat, which served as an overcoat, offered a glimpse of a second, greenish frock coat tied at the waist with a threadbare cord. This individual had a flowing beard, but the highpoint were the two locks of hair that escaped from his outlandish hat and hung, neatly curled, in front of his ears. The English, being champions of the razor, looked at him with alarm while he strode up and down, above the melee. This was a Jew.
And then on the train from Dover, when Londres has chosen a seat near him, he sits and prays: “Calmly, the rabbi mumbled on his text, his lips in motion like a munching rabbit.”
From the railway station Londres tracks his rabbi, on foot and by bus, into Jewish Whitechapel. The next day Londres employs a translator and returns and finds that the rabbi is visiting London collecting funds for the starving Jews in Galicia. They talk. Like his fellow rabbis he completely rejects Zionism and assimilation: “They think they are English, French. They have lost their minds.” Discussion ended, the rabbi
returned to his armchair. He picked up his Talmud and, without looking up at us again, oblivious to the fact that Whitechapel was far from the Carpathians, plunged body and soul, sidelocks swaying with celestial fervour, into the commentaries on the divine word.
Londres has his subject, and for his French readers he begins “a journey around the Jews”. Not those Jews he and his readers were familiar with in Western Europe, perhaps less interesting because they seemed an accepted part of the societies they lived in: “If the world consisted solely of France or America, Germany or England, Zionism would not exist.” Zionism with its encouragement of settlement in Palestine was then happening because of the dangers the Jews faced in Eastern Europe: “Let us, therefore, situate the Jewish question where it truly lies: in Poland, Russia, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.”
His journey, following the Wandering Jew, was undertaken with the excitement of a Tintin adventure. He travelled by train, hired cars and ship into pogrom countries with still far from familiar placenames. Today they read like map points along the killing routes of the Einsatzgruppen—Mukachevo, Vizhnitz, Sighet, Marmosh Mountains, Bushtyno, Cluj, Ganitz and Oradea-Mare. His journey was also optimistic and would end in the country where the Jewish Question might be finally answered: Palestine.
Forty-five hours from Paris in the Carpathians he discovers what he is looking for:
And here they are! Here are the Jews! At first glance, they looked to me like extraordinary figures who had descended this morning from the most distant planet, but these were indeed Jews.
Londres knew what had been, but not what was to come. Modern accounts of the Holocaust generally start with Hitler taking power in 1933 and if they move backwards it is to study the roots of German anti-Semitism. Londres looked to the east for the danger threatening his Jews: “the spectre is called pogrom”. His study of the “modern pogrom” began with the Russian pogrom of 1881, which appears only as a footnote in Saul Friedländer’s major study Nazi Germany and the Jews. Likewise the later author’s discussion of Polish pogroms is simply a reference to those in 1935 and 1936, though he does classify Kristallnacht as one. In Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews the word pogrom does not even generate an index entry. As Londres considered the lives and fates of the millions of East European Jews he was concerned with the ever-present threat they faced: “If we study them closely, we see that pogroms present themselves in three forms: non-bloody, bloody, and cruel and sadistic.” In late 1938 the English novelist Louis Golding, in a Penguin Special called The Jewish Problem, called what had happened in Germany since the coming of Hitler a “Cold Pogrom”.
Reading Londres suggests histories of the Holocaust should consider far more deeply the influence of the violence of pogroms from 1881 on both the future victims and those volunteers who aided in the later Nazi work of extermination, and then step forward and include the post-war killing of Jews in the same territories. The resignation of Jews going to their deaths, remarked on by their German executioners, seems foretold by Londres in the conditioning they had received in pogroms already endured:
Without him [pogrom], we would not understand the worried gaze of the Jews from this part of Europe, their fearful comportment, their bent backs, their love of dead-end alleys, nor why, when out in the street, they hug walls and speak in hushed voices, nor their furtive, vigilant curiosity. At the slightest occurrence, they react like a criminal who hears a knock on the door. Indeed, all of them, in these countries, feel they are guilty of a crime: that of being Jewish.
The history of physical pogroms in Eastern Europe should be as essential to the study of the Holocaust as any discussion of the intellectual roots of anti-Semitism in Western Europe. Surely Russian attacks on Jews are as important as what Richard Wagner may have thought about them.
The new introduction to The Wandering Jew Has Arrived by Rav Daniel Epstein helps non-Jewish readers sort out the varieties of Jews Londres observed: “observant and secular, Zionist and anti-Zionist, wonder rabbis, Hassidic tzaddikim and Lithuanian Torah scholars”. In the pages of his book are an extraordinary variety of individuals who will be shot beside execution pits or loaded into cattle trucks destined for mass murder killed by people who, in 1929, had not the slightest idea of the part they would play in the drama ahead. The year before Londres followed his Jews, twenty-seven-year-old Rudolf Höss, future constructor and commandant of Auschwitz, had been released from prison after serving four years of a ten-year sentence for his part in a political murder; he then turned to farming. Twenty-one-year-old Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, was a recently qualified master weaver in Austria. Twenty-three-year-old Adolf Eichmann, transport specialist and Jewish expert, was an Austrian agent for the Vacuum Oil Company. How strange that these people should ever meet as Jewish problem on one hand and final solution on the other.
In Oradea-Mare, in Romania, where the temperature was minus twenty-nine when Londres arrived, a pogrom had occurred only fourteen months before. His translator Ben, who is also desperate to escape the prison of nations and nationalities he lives in, says, “Find me a job in France … I speak thirteen languages, and here it is so cold I can’t even open my mouth.” In the houses they visit they are told of broken windows, physical violence and fear. “It seemed as though the tidal wave had occurred yesterday—no doubt because they fear it will return tomorrow.” In the synagogue, it is Friday, and new Torah scrolls have replaced those destroyed. Here as elsewhere on his travels Londres introduces the names of Palestine, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Zionists are unpopular. The rabbis teach that the time of return has not come. A young Zionist responds accurately: “By dint of waiting for him they will all end up slaughtered. They are like the residents of Stromboli. Waiting for the volcano to erupt.” You hope he managed to find his own way off the dangerous slope.
In Cernauti, says Londres, “the streets [of clothing shops] look like the aisles of an imaginary closet whose clothes, aided by the wind, wave their fleas over passers-by”. In Mukachevo, “The cold pushed me into my room. But as soon as I entered it, I went out again: the Jews were just so beautiful.” The latter observation may have surprised some of his anti-Semitic French readers. On pogroms:
A Hebrew always sticks in the throat of a Slav. And a long life together has not brought them closer. A Pole or a Russian chases a Jew from a pavement as though the Jew, who is passing by, is stealing his air. A Jew, in the eyes of an Eastern European, is the incarnation of a parasite.
Naturally, Londres travels to Palestine to see for himself. “I crossed the sea but found the same family.” He is clear about the new problem: “A national home in another national home—that’s war!”
He describes the conflicts past and present and suggests those of the future, while being completely supportive: “But what are the Jews trying to find in Palestine? A fortune? No, a country.” He looks about and discovers, “And this is the sensational fact in the entire life of the Wandering Jew—he has not bowed his head!” And Tintin ends his voyage among the Jews with two final questions:
“Has the Wandering Jew arrived? Why not?”
The Wandering Jew Has Arrived
by Albert Londres, translated by Helga Abraham
Gefen Publishing, 2017, 203 pages, US$16.95