Do you know Joseph Roth the novelist? No relation to Philip, but a
far superior writer by my lights, at least. Born in Galicia in 1894, in
the extreme east of the then Hapsburg Empire, Roth authored some 15
novels, most of which have now been translated into English from the
original German — some only quite recently. “The Tale of the 1002nd
Night” indeed was published here just last year to high praise.
This month sees the publication of a rare non-fiction work of
Roth’s: “The Wandering Jews.” Written in the ’30s, Roth had tremendous
difficulty in finding a German publisher for it — this was when, after
all, one Adolf Hitler was in power. The introduction for what he hoped
would be a second edition was never to be published in his lifetime.
You do not need to be a philosemite, however, to find this a
tremendously — even intensely — moving work.
In May 1939, barely four months before Hitler’s armies invaded
Poland, Roth committed suicide in a rented room above the Cafe Tournon
on Paris’ Left Bank. (Curiously, my husband and I used to frequent that
cafe on Rue Tournon when we first came to Paris. We noted up above the
cafe awning, on the second floor of the building, one of those hundreds
of small white marble plaques the French put up all over their capitol
to commemorate where — French or foreign — an artist, writer,
composer, musician or creator of note was born, lived, worked or died.
It was sometime before we found one of Roth’s books in print.)
Many of Roth’s novels like his masterpiece, “The Radetzky March,” are
situated in Vienna in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a
city and time for which Roth felt and communicated an enormous
nostalgia. In the First World War, he’d served in Emperor Franz
Joseph’s army and all his life considered the once great empire as “my
“The Wandering Jews,” a small — 146-pages — and very handsomely
designed little book is, as its excellent translator Michael Hofmann
puts it, “The classic portrait of a vanished people.” Roth, struck by
the influx and movements of populations, particularly in Eastern Europe
following the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focused on
what was happening with the Jews from these lands.
He recognized how, in the wake of the Versailles Treaty and talk of
“national self-determination,” the Jews were perforce at a
disadvantage: “But even if the Jews were to succeed in acquiring all
the rights of a ‘national minority’ in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, in
Romania, in the German-speaking part of Austria, it would still beg the
great question of whether the Jews are not actually a far bigger thing
altogether than a European-style national minority, whether they are not
indeed more than a ‘nation’ in the European sense and whether in
pressing their entitlement to ‘national rights’ they are not renouncing
far more important claims.”
If a good part of Roth’s book is a meditation of where Jews belong in
Western Europe, a good portion is devoted to some wonderfully delineated
passages on the variety of Jews to be found throughout the lands of
Europe. Intellectuals, merchants, businessmen, musicians, lawyers,
beggars and peasants. For yes, as Roth reminds us, there were indeed
Jewish peasants — strong, tough workers of the soil — if not known to
most Christian city dwellers.
Roth describes these various segments of Jewish communities with a
loving yet unsentimental eye, reflecting his considerable gifts as a
novelist. In many cases he is describing people and a way of life that
no longer exists — in large measure, of course, due to the Holocaust
which he was not to experience. His work here joins both the writing of
Isaac Babel and the paintings of Marc Chagall.
In his lifetime, too, Roth was witnessing the migration of European
Jews to the ancient homeland of Palestine. His comments seem curiously
apt in light of what is happening in the state of Israel today. “He
[the young immigrant to Palestine] is as much a European as a Jew. He
brings the Arabs electricity, fountain pens, engineers, machine guns,
shallow philosophies and all the other things that come out of England.
Of course the Arabs ought to be grateful for the fine new roads. But
the instincts of a people close to nature quite rightly rebel against
the onslaught of an Anglo-American civilization, all in the name of
national rebirth. The Jew has a right to Palestine, not because he once
came from there, but because no other county will have him.”
Roth ends this passage on an eerily prescient note: “The Arab’s fear
for his freedom is just as easy to understand as the Jew’s genuine
intention to play fair by his neighbor. And despite all that, the
immigration of young Jews into Palestine increasingly suggests a kind of
Jewish Crusade, because, unfortunately, they also shoot.” Sixty-five
years have passed since Roth wrote those words.