The Wandering Reporter
“Whoever put the idea of the Messiah into their heads? . . . 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!”
This outburst—emitted in 1930 by a Zionist recruiter whose pleas had failed to move the Jews of an impoverished, pogrom-pillaged Eastern European shtetl—is only one of many prescient passages to be found in The Wandering Jew Has Arrived, a little-known work by the great French investigative journalist Albert Londres (1884–1932). Only pages before, Londres had observed, “A Pole or a Russian chases a Jew from a pavement as though the Jew, who is passing by, is stealing his air.”
Famous in his time in France, though little known today in America, Londres had in 1929 and 1930 visited Jewish communities and ghettoes in London, Eastern Europe, and Palestine and collected his reports for the French press in book form under the title Le Juif errant est arrivé. Just before the rise of Nazism, his travelogue exposed the growing presence of an increasingly virulent anti-Semitism in Europe. What he, a Christian, heard and saw bolstered his sympathy for the plight of the Jews and his support for Zionism, even if he also all too accurately foresaw ever-greater conflicts between Jews and Arabs should a Jewish state come to be.
Why haven’t most of us heard of Londres and his book? Although an English translation appeared in 1931 (titled The Jew Has Come Home), it has long been out of print in the United States—as have all his books. Only now is it available in English again, in a new translation by Helga Abraham and published by the Jerusalem-based Gefen Publishing House under the title The Wandering Jew Has Arrived.
Obscure in the United States, in France Londres’s memory is so revered that a journalist can receive no more prestigious an award than the Prix Albert-Londres, established in his memory the year after his shocking death aboard an ocean liner that caught fire and sank on its maiden voyage. A restless traveler, he was fearless in his coverage of the Great War’s battlefronts and intrepid in his pursuit of stories in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the Balkans, South America, China, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. He filed his initial reports in contemporary newspapers, with the dispatches soon after collected into books—18 of them, many of which remain in print in France.
From these works, it’s clear that Londres’s true calling lay in covering the underdogs of life. His subjects spanned a broad arc of human misery, including convicts in the penal colony of Cayenne (better known as Devil’s Island) in French Guiana, exploited native Africans in Senegal and French Congo, the white slave trade and prostitution in South America, the horrific conditions of mental asylums, the shark attacks and long-term organ damage endured by pearl-divers in Bahrain and elsewhere.
In his 2004 monograph, Writing on the Move: Albert Londres and Investigative Journalism, Walter Redfern wrote that Londres’s investigative reports on prisons and asylums “did produce tangible results, in the form of alleviation of appalling conditions.” And Daniel Epstein, in the introduction to Gefen’s edition, claims that Londres’s report on Cayenne ultimately led to its closure. But this book, with its exposé of the hunger and starvation of the Jews of Eastern Europe, already marginalized and stigmatized well in advance of Hitler’s rise to power, changed nothing. Instead, for Redfern, the volume was “a fine but materially ineffective lament over man’s infinite capacity for inhumanity.”
It is more than that.
Read today, The Wandering Jew Has Arrived can be seen as a chilling and prophetic piece of historical reportage. An offhand mention of the population of Eastern Europe’s Jews as six million stands out like an entry in an accounting ledger of the annihilation to come. A passing remark about doors to America that were already closed to Jewish immigrants becomes a moral indictment of uncaring abandonment. When he concludes, after witnessing the pillaged remains of several shtetls, that “A Jew, in the eyes of an eastern European, is the incarnation of a parasite,” it’s impossible not to hear one of the foundational tropes of Nazi propaganda. The sound of Nazi anti-Jewish prohibitions to come is clear as Londres reports the dismissal of Polish Jews from all state employment. Though he was a Christian, just by virtue of socializing with Jews Londres is targeted for insult when a Pole in Lwów takes him for a Jew and “digs his elbow into my ribs and shouts . . . ‘Piss off, out of my way, you dirty dog!’” Londres could not foresee the extent of the atrocities to come, but he was attuned to a drumbeat growing ever louder concerning the so-called Jewish Question (i.e., what to do with them?). And so, a dozen years after the Balfour Declaration, he began his investigations into the economic status of the Jews in Europe and their views on Zionism.
To be sure, in Londres’s descriptions there is often a disturbing undercurrent of caricature and stereotype. In his very first chapter, titled “A Bizarre Personage,” he introduces readers to a gentleman dressed in solid black, with flowing beard and curled sidelocks and who in conversation “expresses himself as much with his fingers as with his tongue. If he were one-armed, he would be half mute!”
Similarly, as he departs for Eastern Europe, he declares, with mock merriment, “I am leaving the civilized world to descend into ghetto country.” And describing his first sighting of Jewish villagers in the Carpathians, he writes rather as if he were an explorer in an unknown land:
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. They formed black silhouettes against the snow, and their beards and caftans make them look like cypress trees. With beards and caftans flapping in the wind, these cypress trees trembled. . . . Ah! What ignorance—you who thought you knew every species of man that treads the earth! And this species lives in Europe, forty-five hours from Paris?
Londres can also be cuttingly critical of Jewish religious observance, commenting that one of the villages he comes upon “is not in the twentieth century. It has barely passed the age of Genesis.”
Was his jokey callousness a way to distance himself from identifying too closely with his marginalized subjects—or was it also pandering to his readers’ prejudices? He snipes at “bloodless” kosher meat and displays a showman’s dramatic flair in exclaiming an amused wonderment mixed with odd respect that a people can hold tightly to so many strict and arbitrary-seeming rules for so many generations. Throughout, Jews remain “other” to the French journalist.
But for all of his off-putting remarks, Londres also shows himself to be genuinely and engagingly curious about Jewish ritual and tradition. He is fairly conversant with Jewish history, providing readers with an outline of persecution through the millennia, and accurately describes prayer practices and kashrut. He is also acutely aware that then, as now, there existed no single monolithic Jewish people, but numerous divisions in levels of observance, assimilation, and acceptance by the non-Jewish community around them. In the same way, Londres’s own stance toward his Jewish subjects was alternately empathetic and sardonic.
This balance shifts as the book goes on, however, and the more Londres travels and observes, the more sympathetic he becomes to the plight of the Jews. His response is palpable as he bears witness to the abject poverty of the communities he comes across. In the Czech countryside, Jewish villagers show him “the open roofs, the mud inside, their four, five or six children shivering with cold . . . the grandfather dressed in rags and moaning over the stove, the little girls who did not grow because of deprivation . . . the babies dressed in shirts, barefoot on the ice.” And yet, Londres points out with ironic outrage, “people say, rich as a Rothschild!”
He gags at the stench of sewage that pervades a Jewish section of Lwów. His mini-census of the abject poverty he encounters on Synagogue Street has an outraged Dickensian cadence:
No. 1: nine families of five to eight children, crying of cold and hunger and rotting on the foulest of dung heaps.
No. 2: ten families, ditto.
No. 3, No. 4, on both sides of the street, all the way down, ditto.
Ditto for the sloping streets, flat streets, dead-end streets. The day before yesterday, from two to six o’clock, yesterday from nine to twelve, today from one to seven, ditto.
And wherever he goes, Londres asks about Zionism and Palestine. He asks almost every Jew he meets whether he would be willing to trade the known poverty and persecutions of Europe for the unknowns of Palestine. Although the two young men who agree to act as guides and translators in the course of his travels through Eastern Europe aspire to do so, the more usual response he receives is tepid at best. In a typical example, an observant Jew in the Carpathians equates a Jew who goes to labor as a pioneer in Palestine with “a nonbeliever, a denigrator of prophecies.” Again and again, Londres hears the refrain, not until the Messiah comes will it be time for Jews to return to the Holy Land.
It is in Bessarabia that Londres meets the visiting Zionist pioneer, come to persuade fellow Jews to return with him to Tel Aviv, to which he had fled at the age of 18 in the aftermath of the brutal Zhitomir pogrom of 1919. He is enraged by the icy reception of a local rabbi, uttering the prophecy of impending doom with which this essay began. But Londres and his translator-guides have no better luck eliciting interest in Zionism as they go door to door asking the Jewish shopkeepers of Czernowitz in Bukovina, “Do you want to go to Palestine?” They find not a taker among them.
Ironically, then, it is Londres himself who goes to Palestine, on the next leg of his journey. His description of the “new Jews” he encounters reads like an ode to Jewish Palestine: “From a state of slavery, they became free men. In their hearts, pride replaced shame. Confidence replaced fear. And each one could stand at his window and shout, ‘I am a Jew! This is my glory!’ without risking being tied on the spot to the tail of a wild mare.” But it is a freedom that, as he is made all too aware of by the anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, and elsewhere in August 1929, will be lived “from massacre to massacre.”
It’s hardly a messianic vision. And yet, from Londres’s point of view, it seems the preferred alternative to the coming massacres he also foresaw in Europe and Russia. Perhaps it is this vision of bloodshed on one continent versus bloodshed on another that leads him to end his book without a real conclusion to “the Jewish question,” but instead, with additional questions: “Has the Wandering Jew arrived?
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