A Perpetual Fate, a Perpetual Disgrace

Roth, Joseph: Juden auf Wanderschaft (English title: The Wandering Jews) ISBN 978-3-423-13439-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Kafka, reading about Kafka and reflecting the fate of the Jews from Eastern Europe – it’s all part of the same story. Kafka was an assimilated Jew living in Prague, and during World War I, thousands of Jews from Russia and Galicia fled to what would later become the Czech Republic. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was suffering defeat after defeat on the Eastern front, and former Austrian outposts were overrun by Russian troops, forcing the local Jews to flee. Russia was no friend of the Jews. Neither was Prague.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) , a writer turned reporter, narrates the story of the Eastern Jews, despised by their assimilated cousins in Western Europe and most of the rest of Europe. Filthy, poor, dishonest, uneducated – thise were Jewish prejudices against Jews, gladly taken up by anti-Semitists anywhere in Europe. “The Wandering Jew”, published in 1927, is a disturbing book, even after so many years. So little has changed. If you look at the current stereotypes attributed to refugees from Syria, Irak, Afghanistsn, Libya… you know where they stem from. And Anti-Semitism of course is alive and kicking.

Roth’s book is brutal when it comes to describe how Eastern Jews have been treated since the late 19th century and up to 1933, a date after which all Jews in Europe risked to run a common fate: annihilation. This is balanced by his description of the Eastern Jews’ communities, their industriousness, their internal solidarity, their faith, the rich cultural traditions, their unshakable will to live and their courage to pursue their luck in foreign countries, whatever price they may have to pay.

The wandering of the Jews – for up to the foundation of Israel they lacked a true fatherland in a territorial sense – pushed them to seek a political and ideological home: Palestine. Not just a territory, no, a political concept, a dream. Zionism, the logic consequence of more than 1000 years of European Anti-Semitism, the way out of the eternal dilemma: assimilation or discrimination? It’s hard to say what was worse in Roth’s eyes since he showed little sympathy for the superficial Western bourgeois society of which he was a product. Roth studied in Lviv and Vienna, he later lived in Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Roth explains it all very well, and any honest reader looking at the refugee debate in Europe, President Trump’s idée fixe about a protective wall on the Mexican border or the Middle East shows that the so-called Western civilizations use stereotypes and concepts in their debates almost identical to those used some 100 years ago. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the biggest fool of all? Speaking about fools, Roth taught me something I didn’t know yet. Every Stetl had its Batlen, a storyteller, a joker or, as Roth puts it, somebody who reflected useless ideas. I sense a subversive element here and I love this kind of social subversion. Watch and listen to the Batlen, for he speaks the truth!

The laconic style in which Roth describes life in a Stetl, the relationships among Jews and between Jews and gentiles and between the Jews and God made me smile occasionally. These descriptions appear funny like in “funny little people” – the Hobbits come to my mind. Actually, there is nothing funny about them. The stoicism with which the Eastern European Jews supported their internal political and cultural divisions and the hostility of the environment is remarkable. It hides the earnest that filled these people’s minds. Roth says the Jewish people can be punished by God, but never abandoned.

Finally, in the context of Eastern Jews settling in Berlin, Roth mentions something important: “Everything is improvised […] One must always be ready to move and carry one’s few belongings, some bread and an onion in one pocket, the Tefillin in the other. Who knows whether one will not be forced to wander again in the next hour.” From German Jews I occasionally hear that, once more, “the suitcases are packed”. In the light of a revival of Anti-Semitism in Germany, this is no surprise. It certainly is a disgrace. At the same time it would appear that it never has been different: a perpetual threat, a perpetual disgrace. And this text grows longer and longer, and it’s message will reach, once more, the wrong audience…

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, qis celebrated with a prayer, the Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch and Arnold Schönberg have set it to music:

A light is sown for the repenting sinner