At a recent Erev Shabbat table sat a gentleman from times gone by. He was soft-spoken, courtly, and wore his pants hoisted high and held up by suspenders; clearly, a European who had personally endured horrors in the last century.
Indeed, he had personally survived the Holocaust in Poland. Therefore, I could not immediately understand why he now attends a very left-wing synagogue—but, totally incomprehensible, was his unexpected and rather passionate defense of Poland and of the Poles. He argued on their behalf as if his very life still depended upon it.
“There were good Poles, Poles who risked death to save Jewish lives–and Poland gave up fewer of its Jews than any other country in Europe…”
I do not know if this is true but what interested me more was his intense, outsized emotion. Had he personally been saved by Poles? Or, like those who revised Anne Frank’s words, does he so desperately need to believe that most people are, at heart, “good;” that only by hewing to this belief will he be able to work with the “good” people to stave off future genocides and to keep his sanity intact? Although there were certainly some righteous Poles, does he not remember how many Poles were paid to hide Jews, and who then turned them in when the money ran out?
I wondered: Had this Polish Jew read Anna Bikont’s recent book about the horrendous 1941 Polish massacre of local, Polish Jews in Yedwabne, The Crime and the Silence? Did he know of the 1946 post World War Two pogrom in Kielce? Was he at all aware of the role that the Polish Catholic Church had played in stirring up Jew-hatred in rural areas before the Nazis goose-stepped in? Did he understand the extent to which some Poles have knowingly, proudly, destroyed Jewish cemeteries and treasured synagogues, used headstones to pave streets–or flooded them so that they now exist under lakes, simply built right over them?
Had he contemplated the meaning of the odd, and oddly grotesque, contemporary sentimental Polish longing for its missing Jews, their studying Yiddish, selling much beloved little Hasidic puppets and figurines, some of which, according to Tuvia Tenenbom, require coins?
Coins, money? How diabolically clever.
Poland’s Jewish Defender continued: “Jews were invited into Poland and we lived there for 700 years.”
Our host, also a European, but a somewhat younger man, began yelling at him. I thought these two men, one quite fragile, the other quite portly, might come to blows.
And then I read Gefen’s reissue of Albert Londres’s 1930-1931 masterpiece, The Wandering Jew Has Arrived, in a new and wonderful translation by Helga Abraham.
Read it—and it will rip your heart right out. Perhaps I should send a copy to my Sabbath companion, the Holocaust survivor.
Londres was a poet-turned-journalist and a daring adventurer to warzones, revolutions, penal colonies, and the South American white slave trade. He may have created personal, investigative journalism. Born in 1884, Londres traveled from one end of Europe to the other and to the Middle East (including Palestine), South America, India, Africa, Central Asia (including Russia and Turkey), and China.
He writes beautifully; Londres is an elegant, literary, humorous, ironic, and an always devastating writer.
Oh, Londres’s Jews! He depicts them so endearingly, so tenderly, as he documents their long-suffering, European sojourn—and their dreamy God-intoxication. The same religiosity that kept Jews alive also kept them frozen in place, and may have explained their refusal to leave for Palestine. Here he is on the Jews of England in 1929:
“Jews have never had a lot of room. Nations ration them land. Those Whitechapel children were jammed on top of one another like the dead in their distant cemeteries, whose tombstones jostle together so frighteningly…Whatever their numbers, when alive, they all had to find room in the ghetto and, when dead, they all had to lie in the cemetery. Neither one nor the other was ever enlarged. It was already an achievement to have been granted a parcel of Christian soil…If anyone were to suggest that they leave England, return to the East–that is, immigrate to Palestine–they would answer: ‘We are English!’ Yet, in their imaginations, the ancient Hebrew soil is always soft under their feet.”
In Eastern Europe, the picture turns darker and much colder. Pogroms, house burnings, Torah defiling, hacking, stabbing, rape, send Jews from Moravia, Little Poland, and Russia, to Ruthenia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Bessarabia, Transylvania, etc.
Londres visits Jews who live, quite literally, in mud, in sewers, underground, on mountain precipices; the cold is unimaginable. Many barely survive on too little food. They study Torah. They celebrate the Sabbath.
“The Ruthenians stand around their homes. Not for them the vagabond’s bundle or the pilgrim’s staff. Rooted, they grow above their roots. The Jews have their roots in their heads. These roots escape from the mane of hair under the hats and bonnets. Is this why they hang on to heaven rather than to earth?”
Eastern European Jews are plagued by tax collectors, Armies that wish to conscript their sons, rowdy neighbors who terrorize and humiliate them and who confiscate their possessions. And then:
“The rabid do not bite everyone. Their teeth dig only into Jews. The sight of a caftan, a beard and sidelocks electrify them. A pogrom is like a forest fire…the first tree that goes up in smoke sets all the others alight. In one stroke, this pogrom (1881-1882) spread across twenty-eight provinces of Old Russia. Then we come to 1903, to the first pogrom that bears a name: the Kishinev pogrom (Bessarabia). Then 1905. Then the great pogrom of 1918-1920 in Ukraine and Eastern Galicia. Then, December 1927 in Romania…More than one hundred fifty thousand killed. More than three hundred thousand wounded. More than one million beaten and pillaged, just in Ukraine and Galicia in 1918-1919.”
Londres refers to this as “specter, barring our way. He roams over Transylvania, over Bessarabia, over Ukraine. Without him, 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, nor their fugitive, 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 specter is called a pogrom.”
Londres interviews assimilated Jews and Zionist pioneers, followers of Herzl, who are trying to persuade European Jews to get out of town before it’s too late. One Zionist says:
“‘I have to come to show these things to the young. Israel has created a miracle, a miracle that can be seen and touched. I am one of the voices of this miracle…Whoever put the idea of the Messiah into their heads?’ he asked. As though he had forgotten that he himself had once been a yeshiva student. ‘By dint of waiting for him, they will all end up slaughtered. They are like the inhabitants of Stromboli, waiting for the volcano to erupt!'”
Londres rushes to Palestine which he views as a “miracle.” The Jews have arrived with “fire in their souls.” He proclaims it a “revolution.” Gone are the side-locks, the beards, the caftans, the covered heads—and in their place are open collars, firm steps, no ceding of their place on the pavement. Torah students defend stores from Arab attacks. Jews pray and weep at the Kotel. Lawyers and doctors are everywhere—it is like cosmopolitan Warsaw but in the sun.
Carefully, in Haifa, in Hebron, Londres writes about the 1929 Arab massacre of Jews in these cities. He also interviews Ragheb al-Nashashibi, the Arab mayor of Jerusalem, who vows that there would be more bloodshed against the Jews once the British left Palestine. Londres responded:
“‘You can’t kill all the Jews. They number one hundred fifty thousand. It would take too long!’
‘No,’ he said in a very soft voice. ‘Just two days!’
‘Seventy-five thousand per day?’
Londres ends this extraordinary book with a question and an answer.
“Has the Wandering Jew arrived?
In 1932, Londres died in a ship fire.
May this noble non-Jew rest in peace.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel National News