The Wandering Jews

The Wandering Jews by Joseph Roth is a marvellous piece of erratic journalism written seventy odd years ago. Roth, himself, was originally from the East but was educated in Germany where he became a recognized journalist (and quite highly paid for the time). In the early thirties he travelled through Eastern Europe writing about the Jewish communities – the ghettos and the shtetels. He wrote with insight and compassion. The West was then being overrun with refugees from the Russian pogroms and even though anti-Semitism was growing inexorably as fascism gained power throughout the continent, the movement of people continued westward as the economies of the East faltered.

The tone of these little vignettes that runs through the book is bittersweet. Roth attempted to humanise and explain these curious people whose ways were so strange even to their assimilated brethren. There is a strong resonance in his writing that evokes the refugees of today streaming into Europe’s heartlands. The same fears and political opportunism directed toward the weakest of the weak exists now as back then. Yet Roth, being Jewish himself, was able to grasp the historical drama that was enacted with a special appreciation that comes from being linked to the struggle of a people but also through a social and political understanding of the events that were shaping the world back then. He was an intelligent observer of those forces and movements and, remarkably, he was able to write about them in a language that made these people come alive to a readership so far removed in time as we are now.

31 August 2002