Seeing Things As They Were

The Wandering Jews By Joseph Roth (translated from the German by Michael Hofmann) Norton 144 pp.; $ 19.95

Writing between the wars, Joseph Roth was furious about the conditions in which Jews were living. Little did he know.

IT’S HARD NOT TO GET sentimental thinking about shtetl life. The natural temptation to romanticize the past is a thousand times stronger when you’re looking back across a chasm of madness and destruction. Stories, photo-graphs, documents, artifacts – no relic from before the Holocaust can escape the dark cast of history’s shadow.

Joseph Roth’s little book “The Wandering Jews,” now published in English 70 years after its first appearance, in German, is fascinating and important precisely because it was written before our myth-making impulses took hold. Reading Roth’s impressionist account of Jews in Europe between the wars is like pressing your eye up against a peephole and staring directly into a vanished world. You see rabbis and clowns, cabaret artists and postcard salesmen, all wonderfully vivid, none of them col-ored by the brush strokes of nostalgia. Likewise, his fiercely critical portrait of assimilated Western European Jews – the most interesting part of the book – is unrestrained by the knowledge of what looms just around the corner.

Like most members of his generation, Roth simply didn’t see it coming: For the Galician novelist and journalist, the problem facing Europe’s Jews was nationalism, not genocide. Living in Vienna in the 20s, Roth researched and wrote many articles on the plight of refugees who had been swept up and scattered by World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles. He became an expert on displaced persons. And while he is often sympathetic to their troubles, his strongest sentiment is anger: He’s mad at the politicians who carved up the map, mad at the bureaucrats who turned a blind eye, and sometimes he’s even mad at those who suffer passively through it all.

Roth was bitterly disappointed by the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The last 20 years of his life were spent, essentially, mourning its death. Hapsburg rule, which stretched across a massive chunk of Europe until 1918, looms large in all his fiction, especially in “The Radetzky March” and “The Emperor’s Tomb,” Roth’s best novels, which he wrote in exile in Paris during the 30s. Roth’s sophisticated mix of surrealism, realism, comedy and parable – critics have compared him to his contemporaries Robert Musil and Franz Kafka – is often a complex working out of his relationship to the state. His characters are soldiers, war heroes, army doctors, loyal subjects; they are all beholden, and thus in some way secure. And though “The Wandering Jews” doesn’t bother to argue the merits of the lost empire, it goes a long way to illustrate the wretchedness of the world that emerged in its wake.

No longer minorities under Hapsburg rule, Europe’s Jews had become subject to the whims of newly formed nations. In some states they had achieved degrees of tolerance, but for every political gain a fresh and unfamiliar obstacle popped up. Many drifted west in search of better fortune, only to face awful bureaucratic hassles. The successful ones bribed corruptible authorities. Others stopped mid-journey, far from home but not where they wanted to be either. “Half a Jew’s life, ” writes Roth, “is consumed by the futile battles with papers.”

Through cities, villages and ghettos, he traces their path. From a poor neighborhood in Vienna filled with hawkers and peddlers, to a street in Berlin that is a dingy mix of bakers, Talmud scholars and musicians, to regions of Paris and Odessa, each Jewish community is recorded with careful attention to sounds and smells. His descriptions are short and never go that deep but they are filled with enough evidence to support his central idea: that there are really just two kinds of Jews, the unenlightened Eastern underclass and the Western bourgeoisie.

With a hint of ironic dismissiveness, he says that the Eastern Jew’s life is, at best, respectably impoverished: “He starves and stints himself in a more methodical way than the Christian proletarian does. You might say: He misses his meals at more regular hours.” They may be poor, but they’re orderly, and however naive (he calls their religious conviction “crazy stubbornness”), at least they know how to cope.

As for Westerners, social success doesn’t impress Roth at all. He writes disdainfully of assimilated Jews, who “by virtue of the fact that they grew up with elevators and flush toilets, allow themselves to make bad jokes about Rumanian lice, Galician cockroaches or Russian flies.” One wonders, is that fair? He may well be telling the truth about upwardly mobile Berliners who are embarrassed by the arrival of their poor Eastern relatives. But his moral indignation is perhaps misplaced. Even relatively comfortable Jews in Austria, France and Germany had reason to be afraid for the security of their social status. Of course, Roth couldn’t have known how fully history would justify their fears.

AND WHAT ABOUT ZIONISM? SURELY EVEN ROTH, with all his skepticism and sorrow, could have been carried away by the idealism of the movement. Many of his contemporaries believed that the establishment of a Jewish state would level out the differences between rich and poor, between urban Jews and rural, between Western and Eastern. Not Roth. He grudgingly recognizes the merits of a safe haven for Jews – in a short, almost cursory passage – but says that Arabs have reason to reject what he calls the “onslaught of an Anglo-American civilization.” That Zionists were arriving in the desert with noble ideals and a number of sophisticated British tricks like electricity was all fine and good. But “the immigration of young Jews into Palestine,” he says in a characteristically wry tone, “increasingly suggests a kind of Jewish Crusade, because, unfortunately, they also shoot.”

Yet Roth’s distrust of Zionism wasn’t really about Arabs, it was about nationalism, the prickliest and most persistent thorn in his side. “If there can ever be such a thing as a just history, surely the Jews will be given credit,” he writes, “for holding on to their common sense in not having a fatherland at a time when the whole world launched itself into patriotic madness.”

Having fled to Paris in 1933, he died there, drunk and desperate, a convert to Catholicism, six years later – too soon to witness the horrors that were about to rupture Europe, yet early enough to sense that conditions for Jews were going to get a lot worse before they got better. “It seems unduly optimistic to hope that Europe might recover its conscience,” he wrote in an added preface to the 1937 edition. “The Wandering Jews,” which is a smart, curious and eye-opening collection of observations, had already turned into a piece of history.

Sarah Fulford is an associate editor at Toronto Life magazine.

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