Why the Jewish Question Had No Good Answer in 1929

French journalist Albert Londres' "The Wandering Jew Has Arrived" offers a unique glimpse, through the eyes of an outsider, of Jewish life at the brink of impending catastrophe

Jews of Iaşi being rounded up and arrested during the pogrom.
Photographer unknown / Wikimedia Commons

“The Wandering Jew Has Arrived,” by Albert Londres (translated by Helga Abraham), Gefen, 220 pp., $16.95

In 1929, Albert Londres, at 45 years old already one of France’s most sharp-eyed and renowned journalists, set off to cover “the Jewish question” in England, Eastern Europe and Palestine. Londres, born in 1884 to a non-Jewish working-class family in Vichy, had served as a roguish war correspondent on the Belgian front during World War I for Le Matin, covered the birth of Arab nationalism in Syria in 1919, reported on the widespread hunger in the Soviet Union in 1920 and met Mahatma Gandhi in India in 1922.

Londres’ trademark was a scrutiny tempered by a compassion for the powerless and oppressed. In the mid-1920s, after joining the leading daily Le Petit Parisien, he depicted the hellish French penal colony in Cayenne, forced labor in North Africa, the abuses of French lunatic asylums and the trafficking of women in Argentina. In each case, he brought both exacting attention and ironic flair to bear on his reporting. His favored grammatical tense is the present-intimate. Pierre Assouline, in his 1989 biography of Londres, calls him “a poet of immediate history.”

On his return from following in the footsteps of “the wandering Jew,” Londres collected his 27 newspaper dispatches into a book called “The Wandering Jew Has Arrived” (“Le juif errant est arrivé,” originally published in 1930). The book, which Assouline told me in a telephone interview, is regarded as “one of Londres’ most important—and enduring—works,” was published in Hebrew in 2008 (translated by Michal Ilan), and now appears in the welcome and fluent English translation of Helga Abraham. It offers a unique glimpse, through the eyes of an outsider, of Jewish life in Eastern Europe at the brink of impending catastrophe.

Londres begins his pursuit of the Wandering Jew in London’s East End. He strolls down Whitechapel Road, past storefronts displaying portraits of Lord Balfour and Theodor Herzl, “the pope of Zionism.” One Jewish shopkeeper tells Londres that he “trembled with pride” when his two sons fought in British uniform in the First World War. “I have the deepest gratitude toward England,” the shopkeeper tells him. “These highly intelligent countries viewed us like men, not like some kind of frightening demon. They treated us as equals. It is up to us to show them that they were not mistaken.”

Visiting Jewish communities on the Continent, however, Londres finds less cause for optimism. Along with an interpreter who speaks 13 languages—including Russian, Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew—Londres is stirred, on the one hand, by scenes of great dignity. Looking in on a ramshackle heder (a religious elementary school) in the Carpathians, he listens to the “intoxicating music” of children chanting Hebrew. In Warsaw, he stands transfixed by the sight of yeshiva students, “acrobats of the mind,” as he calls them, gorging themselves on the intricacies of Talmudic texts. He cannot help but admire their passion for learning, their active minds, the fidelity to their origins. In Oradea (Grosswardein), a shtetl on the Romania-Hungary border, Londres stays with the cousins of his interpreter, who had survived a recent pogrom. At the Friday night table, his hosts sing melodies “that tug at one’s heart like a departing ship,” and that transport them to another, more exalted realm, far from the fear of carnage.

Albert Londres
Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, Londres confronts the sour stench of abject poverty. He meets shuffling Jewish vagabonds frozen to the bone. Overcome with emotion, he listens to their litanies of misfortune, to the affronts and mockeries they endure. In the Lvov ghetto, the journalist visits with wretched Jews, “heads hunched into their shoulders by the mallet of misery.” He can scarcely believe the scenes of near-starvation. “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.”

Here Londres learns to distinguish between the merely bloody pogrom and the sadistic one. In Ovruch (present-day northwestern Ukraine), for instance, victims were made to whip each other as they sang a Shabbat tune called “mah yafit” (“mayufes,” in Yiddish pronunciation), meaning “how beautiful.” The irony is not lost on Londres: “It was the Jews who invented the scapegoat The nations of the East retained the idea. But they replaced the goat with the Jew.”

At last, Londres is granted an audience with the Gerrer Rebbe, the Hasidic leader Avraham Mordechai Alter. “Is there more than one goy per year,” he asks himself, “who can boast of such an honor?” Although the revered rabbi greets the visitor with a “gaze as hard as a diamond,” Londres bravely asks through his interpreter what he has to say about the horrific poverty and suffering and exile of the Jews. “He says that one must rely only on God,” the interpreter replies.

“Every nation has its own image,” Londres reflects. “All you have to do is look at the images on coins. They are imprinted with the image of a rooster, a woman’s head, a sheaf, an eagle, or a king. The image of the Jewish people should be Cubist: arms on one side, head on the other, legs in a corner, and trunk missing.”

Time and again, Londres asks the Eastern European Jews he meets whether Zionism could restore the trunk; whether a return to the Promised Land could solve the scapegoating, could answer the poverty and the pogroms. Most dismiss the notion. In Czernowitz, a bookseller tells Londres that the ingathering of the Jews has not yet been proclaimed; redemption, he mumbles, is “not in the hands of men.”

'You can't kill all the Jews'

In search of Jews who had taken history into their own hands and had coalesced into a conscious community, Londres devotes the last third of his account to the pulsing life of Palestine in the tumultuous and bloody year 1929, the year historian Hillel Cohen calls “year zero of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Londres marvels at Tel Aviv, “bright, spacious, sunny, and all white. It emanates a fierce determination to leave the ghetto behind.” He wonders at the sight of clean-shaven, open-collared Jews—no longer subjects, but citizens—walking “in the middle of the pavement, without worrying about having to cede their place to a Pole, a Russian, or a Romanian.” He meets Meir Dizengoff, the city’s first mayor, and Pinchas Rutenberg, who established the country’s electricity network.

Early Zionist pioneers at Kibbutz Degania, 1921.
Wikimedia Commons

And amid this apparent pastlessness, he is amazed by the revival of a history-haunted language: “It is in Hebrew that a child calls his mother, that a lover lies to his beloved, and that neon signs entice passersby,” Londres writes. “Descended directly from the crown of God, the sacred letters flash today above doorways.”

But even here, amid the recommencement of a suspended national life, the journalist remains alert to the tremors caused by the arrival of the wandering Jews. He sits down with Raghib Nashashibi, then mayor of Jerusalem, who instructs Londres in the implacable Arab hostility toward the Jewish presence in Palestine, and who vows bloodshed once the British Mandatory authorities have left.

“You can’t kill all the Jews,” Londres said. “They number 150,000. It would take too long!”

“No,” he [Nashashibi] said in a very soft voice. “Just two days!”

“Seventy-five thousand per day?”

“No problem.”

The chilling exchange distills for Londres a new view not only of the Arab fear of displacement but of the precarious position of the Jewish pioneers. “Did you flee from the pogroms of Europe in order to fall into those of the Orient?” he wonders.

Passivity and resignation

Londres is not afraid to pause and ponder and admit incomprehension. In this book’s most poignant episode, he reports his encounter in Kishinev (Moldova) with a 28-year-old pioneer from Palestine. Alter Fischer, as he is called, is the closest character to a tragic hero in Londres’ drama. A scarred survivor of the Zhitomir pogrom in 1919, Fischer had returned to Europe in the vain attempt to convince others to follow him. Yet Fischer meets only with passivity and resignation. “Whoever put the idea of the Messiah into their heads?” he asks Londres. “By dint of waiting for him, they will all end up slaughtered.”

Londres himself would not live to witness the slaughter. In 1932, having published this book, he embarked on a covert mission to report on the Sino-Japanese War. On his way back, he took an ocean liner returning to Marseilles from its maiden voyage to the Far East. The ship caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Aden. Londres died at the age of 48. Today, a prestigious journalism award—the French equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize—bears his name.

The quality of Londres’ noticing is itself worthy of our notice. It allows us to take a fresh, retrospective glance, however aching, over the nearly nine decades that have intervened between his way of noticing and ours. “Our profession is not to give pleasure, nor to do harm,” Londres once said. “It is to twist the pen into the wound.” In giving voice to a Jewish world on the eve of rupture, unhealed to this day, his pen found its full measure of poetry and eloquence.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author of “Kafka’s Last Trial,” forthcoming from Norton.