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legend of the wandering Jew in Europe and in
Central and Eastern Europe
In European folklore, the evangelical motif ”Jesus’ Passions” has functioned as a frame in which the legend of the ”Wandering Jew” was forged. Summarized in brief, the legend goes as follows: As Jesus was bearing His cross up the Via Dolorosa, He sat Himself down to recover His breath on a bench that was in front of a Jewish shoemaker’s house, one called Ahasuerus. The said shoemaker cried out insults (he even hit Him, according to some versions) and drove Him away. Jesus doomed Ahasuerus to wander the length and breadth of the earth and not find his place, his peace, or even his death, anywhere before the Day of Judgment. The motif ”immortality as doom” can be traced back to an evangelical text: ”Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matthew, 16: 28). Nevertheless, the explicit legend of the ”Wandering Jew” is to be found in none of the Gospels, be they canonical or apocryphal. Its origins are much more recent, in the European Middle Ages, when it was probably intended to encase a metaphorical justification of the Jewish Diaspora from a Christian standpoint.
S ô ren Kirkegaard has counted the legend of the ”Wandering Jew” among the three fundamental myths of European culture, alongside those of Don Juan and Doctor Faust. It is worth noticing that the legend has made a prodigious career even in the absence of biblical sanctioning and its prestige. Instead, the Old-Testament legend of another nomadic and immortal Jew, Cain, did not enjoy the same success. For the fratricidal crime, Cain is to become under God’s curse ”a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis, 4: 11-14). My opinion is that the provision made by Jehovah (at the request of Cain himself) that no one should murder the murderer is not to be taken as an instance of divine mercy —as James George Frazer misleadingly thought —, but one of divine retribution: ”And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him” (Genesis, 4:15). As in the case of the ”Wandering Jew”, Cain’s everlastingness is part of his punishment. This way, the punishment itself has become eternal.
Apparently, Cain’s story possessed all the necessary elements to become the arch pattern of the ”Wandering Jew” legend. In a sense, it has indeed played that role, if only until the moment in which the legend of Ahasverus was born. For instance, in the 1208 Bull of Pope Innocent III is written: ”God made Cain a wanderer and a fugitive on this earth, yet He put a mark on him, and made his head quake, so that he might not be killed. This way, even if the Jews, against whom the blood of Jesus Christ cries out, must not be killed, lest the Christian people forgets the divine commandment, they must remain wanderers upon the earth as long as their face is not wrapped in shame and as long as they do not look for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”.
Against the odds, however, it was not Cain who was preferred. The Jews of the European Middle Ages had to be the descendants of the shoemaker Asuaverus, ”murderer of Jesus”, and not of the tiller Cain, ”murderer of Abel.” Accused, respectively, of fratricide and deicide, and cursed, respectively, by Jehovah and by Jesus, the protagonists of the two legends are doomed to be wanderers (straying in space) as well as immortals (straying in time). The deprecating cognomens that have been conferred Ahasuerus are in direct relation with the emphasis different cultures have laid upon one or another dimension of the punishment. He has been called either the ”Wandering Jew” (also in Fr., Le juif errant), or the ”Eternal Jew” (Germ. Der ewige Jude, or Dutch, De eeuwige Jood). Hungarian is an example of a language where both appellations have been in use (A bolyg ó zsid ó and Az ö r ö kk é val ó zsid ó ); likewise, there is a Hungarian saying that goes: ”Restless like the wandering Jew”.
Although certain anterior rudiments of the legend do exist (dating back from the 13th century), it was given consistent shape in Central and Western Europe no sooner than the 16th century. Furthermore, its true upsurge occurred at the dawn of the next century, with the 1602 German edition of a popular booklet (Volksbuch), no thicker than approximately eight pages. A short text, with a long heading: ”A brief description and tale of a Jew named Ahasuerus, who was present at Christ’s crucifixion and who, moreover, cried out like all the others, ’Crucify Him! Crucify Him!’ and, instead of desiring His acquittal, desired that of Barabbas the murderer; yet, after the Crucifixion, he found he could return to Jerusalem no more and never saw his wife and children again, and remained alive all this while and came for a stay in Hamburg a few years ago, etc., etc.”.
This pamphlet enjoyed a resounding success. Scores of editions followed in print throughout the 17th century, in all countries of Central and Western Europe. It is significant that, in some northern countries (Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, etc.), the book was translated and published prior to the actual arrival of Jews on those territories. The ethnonym ”Jew” was little known among the common people from those places, which probably accounts for the fact that the protagonist of the legend was named neither the ”Wandering Jew” nor the ”Eternal Jew”, but — as in Finland — the ”Shoemaker of Jerusalem”. Everywhere the legend was altered, it incorporated new episodes and borrowed one detail or another from the local cultural characteristics. Thus, it made a sweeping entrance not only in high literature, but in folk literature as well (see the story type AT 777).
Without going into details at this moment, it may be worthwhile to point out some of the causes for the birth and expansion of the ”Wandering Jew” legend, at the particular location of Central Europe and at the particular time of the mid-16th century.
Firstly, the coming out in German of the popular book on the ”Wandering Jew” should be placed in connection to the anti-Semitic diatribes signed by Martin Luther in the last period of his life and it is extremely likely that the legend originated around the middle of the 16th century in the Lutheran media from the northern German states. Besides, the character that in the 1602 edition of the pamphlet narrates his encounter with Ahasuerus the ”wandering Jew” (in Hamburg, 1542) is the future theologian and Bishop of Shleswig, Paul von Eitzen, who was then studying with Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg. This is the epoch when Martin Luther was writing his most trenchant anti-Semitic book, Von den J ü den und ihren L ü gen (”On the Jews and their Lies”), to be published in 1543.
Secondly, one of the explanations for the tremendous success the book enjoyed in the decades succeeding its first (1602) printing could be found in the expectations of an imminent ”end of the world”, prognosticated for the year 1666 (containing the ”number of the beast”, 666, cf. Revelation, 13: 18), when the much awaited return of Jesus on Earth was envisaged. The alleged arrival in Europe of the ”eternally wandering Jew” — who, according to the legend, was to find his rest precisely upon Christ’s second coming — must have been read as an omen that confirmed Millenarist anxieties about the imminent coming of ”Doomsday.”
Thirdly, in the 14th-16th centuries, the Jews from Western Europe were driven in successive waves towards the center of the continent, then further to the East: in 1290 the Jews were driven out of England, in between 1306 and 1394 from France, in 1400 from Prague, between 1420 and 1493 from Austria, in 1492 from Spain, in 1497 from Portugal, between 1498 and 1506 from Provence, between 1424 and 1519 from German territories, etc. Under these circumstances, bearded Jews leaning under heaps of belongings could be seen by tens and hundreds of thousand treading the roads of Central Europe, leaving on people’s retina and in their minds the imprinted image of a ”wandering Jew”, cursed by fate to find his place and rest nowhere. A specter was haunting Europe. There had to follow a legend that could account for this phenomenon. It made its entrance towards the middle of the 16th century, when the context was ripe for the world to receive it.
It remains to be proved to what extent the visual representations of the ”Wandering Jew”, common in Central and Western Europe between the 16th and the 19th centuries, were influenced or not by other images of considerable likeness, such as the ”Fool” of medieval Tarot divination cards or by paintings like ”The Madman” or ”The Prodigal Son” by Hieronimus Bosch.
In Transylvania, a province with close cultural traffic with the Central-European area, the legend of the ”Wandering Jew” was quite well circulated, particularly in Hungarian and German during the 19th century. It is not pure hazard that this legend begins and ends The Emancipation of the Jews, a political writing by the 1848 scholar Joseph E ö tv ö s, published in Hungarian in 1840 and in Italian in 1842. Only by conferring political and economic rights to the Jews in Central Europe — he justly thought — the plight of these people, persecuted and forced to wander perpetually, could come to an end.
It is significant that the serial novel Le Juif errant, first published by Eugene Sue in 1844, was translated during the same year both in Hungarian, by S á ndor Pet ö fi, and Romanian, by Timotei Cipariu (who titled it Ovreiul neadormit, The Sleepless Jew). In the case of Transylvanian scholars of Romanian nationality, the condition of the ”wandering Jew”, oppressed and exiled out of his country, was perceived to be analogous with that of the Romanian inhabitant of Habsburg Transylvania. The historian Sorin Mitu has only recently highlighted the compassion and empathy defining the way in which Transylvanian Romanians related to the Jews’ fate during the second half of the 18th century and especially the first half of the 19th; they identified it with their own social and political status within the Austro-Hungarian Empire: they were likewise discriminated, oppressed, wandering, homeless, and with no rights  . Below are given examples of such analogies between the image of the Jew (either biblical or contemporary) and the Romanian’s self-image:
”Like the Jews, who, for their faithlessness, before they entered the land that was promised them, perished in the wilderness, [the Romanian nation] will not come to look upon the land that has been promised them, which is the kingdom of heaven” (Gherontie Cotore, 1746).
* ”You shall be as you have been thus far, / As the cursed Jews are, there! […] / Who have not a country, but live on the road”; ”Behold […] the Jews, who do not have a country and are strangers in all places and on the road at all times. When all is told, be the country altogether small and poor, still happier is the people that has a country and lives in it” (Ion Budai-Deleanu, Ţiganiada, approx. 1795).
* Europe thinks of the Romanians ”a lot worse than it does of the Jews, who have their Moses” (George Bariţ, ”Românii şi maghiarismul” — ”Romanians and Hungarianism”, 1842).
* ”Tomorrow or the next day [we, the Romanians] will be forced […] to go on pilgrimage, stick in hand and children behind, as once the Jews from fair Palestine; we shall come to the state of real destitution, with no place to lay our heads, shall fill up jail houses, or shall dwindle from starvation and its train of abominable progenies” (Andrei Mureşanu, 1844).
* ”Why, Lord almighty, work Thee not a wonder as in wilds / For people of Judea through Thy Chosen, Thy Moses! / To loosen from their fetters a kin who weeps in slav’ry, / Imploring through her tears delivery from evil!” (Andrei Mureºanu, ”Un suspin” — ”A Sigh”, 1845)
* The Romanian has been scorned by many people, ”as only the Judean and the Gipsy has been” (Timotei Cipariu, 1846)
* The kind of attitude shown towards Romanians was ”a shameful tolerance, like in the case of Jews” (Romanian deputies in the Parliament of Hungary, 1848).
* ”The epoch that began with the year 1659 has been for the Romanians what the bondage in Babylon was for the people of Israel, and the Romanians weep in it even now” (the Bishop of Oradea, Vasile Erdélyi, 1850).
Although the fate of Romanians in Transylvania might not always have been connected with the Jews’, and not always explicitly so, the motif of the ”Wandering Romanian”, the ”Countryless Romanian”, persisted in the imagery of identity circulated by Transylvanian scholars until quite late in the day. More specifically, it is constantly present until 1918, at the Union of Transylvania with Romania. In 1916, for instance, the nationalist poet Octavian Goga published a full volume of poems C întece fără ţară (Songs without A Country), where he likened the ”country of my soul” to ”Canaan where no one cries” and with a Gomorrah where ”the fire shall be one day extinguished.” In the poem entitled precisely ”With No Country,” the poet described himself building on clichés (which, however, are not explicit) of the ”wandering Jew” image:
I am a man deprived of homeland,
A speck of fire swept by breeze,
A slave loos’d from his clasping strand,
The poorest that ever breathed.
I am a magus of laws new,
A madman whom a star’s made blind,
Who strayed far wide to bring to you
The stories of my land […]
I among you my burden carry,
In dirt befouled and in laughter scorned,
For woe to him bereft of country
That begs his home to be returned.
This type of rhetoric — employed, beside Octavian Goga, by nationalist writers from Transylvania until the Great Union of 1918 — was to reverberate, in all its blatant obsolescence, as late as the beginning of the 1980s, in Adrian Păunescu’s poem ”We, the Shepherd and the Rabbi”:
In a frosty world,
In their own homes.
I shall end this extended digression with two observations. Firstly, it is a known fact that, whenever, during the 18th and the 19th centuries, Transylvanian intellectuals identified the Romanians with a ”conquering” people, the term for comparison was none other than their forebears, the Romans under Emperor Trajanus (see, for details, the well-known excesses of ”historic and linguistic Latinism” that the representatives of Şcoala ardeleană — the Transylvanian School — were guilty of). It is significant that, whenever the same scholars looked upon the Romanians as a ”conquered” people, in search for models of prestige they resorted to a parallel not with the Dacians but with the Jews, who — like the Romans — were a ”great” and ”noble” nation, ”with a glorious past.” It is not surprising that, to the leaders of the Transylvanian School, Traian was analogous with a Moses of the Romanians. Samuil Micu and Gheorghe Şincai appear to agree with the French Encyclopaedist Holbach: ”Each people has had a Moses of its own”.
The second observation consists in that the phenomenon detailed above is not of a singular nature. It can equally well be perceived in the case of other minority or marginal groups, be they ethnic, religious, social, or of a different nature. The members of such communities have identified themselves or have been identified by others with the Jews. In 1523, Martin Luther himself asked ”his beloved popery” to ”treat [him] for a Jew”, when they would grow weary of ”treating [him] for a heretic”. When, in the 16th century, French Calvinists were persecuted and victimized by Catholics, they were themselves assimilated with the Jews. L é on Poliakov has even maintained that anti-Jewish propaganda and manifestations lost much of their impetus during that age, to make room for their anti-Protestant equivalents. Protestants were indeed perceived to be a kind of ”semi-Jews”, as É douard Drumont, the self-appointed anti-Semitic watchman of late 19th century France, actually named them (France juive, 1886). At the same time, Calvin was for the Romanian scholar Simion Mehedinşi in 1941 ”fanatical as a rabbi,” while Calvinists ”were not any less cruel than the conquerors of Canaan”.
Around the year 1700, the German Johann C. Wagenseil maintained that the Gypsies were a species of Jews, judging by their itinerant lifestyle. Subsequently, Martin Block was to speak in his turn of the ”Judaic extraction” of the Gypsies, given the ”similitude of secular destiny” between the two peoples. Even the ”wandering Jew” was at times associated with the Gypsy, himself a vagabond through Europe. Simion Mehedinşi wrote in 1941 that, ”the Gypsies, like the Jews” were ”a roaming populace,” ”composed of vagabonds and impervious to measures of hygiene,” that they ”play[ed] the role of the parasite in Europe”, and that they ought to be driven away. Finally, certain late 19th-century socialists — such as the Romanian ”worker-poet” D. Th. Neculuţă (1859-1904) — identified the exploited proletariat with the ”unsettled people” of the Jews, whom Moses had led through the desert. Within the reference system of European culture, the Jews have been the wanderers and the oppressed par excellence. Many discriminated and persecuted groups (be they ethnic, denominational, or political) have empathetically recognized their own destinies in that of the Jews’.
In Moldavia and Wallachia
The legend of the ”Wandering Jew” did not apparently enjoy any conspicuous success in Moldavia or in Wallachia. Even so, I have in my research come across an interesting literary version, remained anonymous. A hypothetical Romanian monk from around the year 1800 may have put the legend into a verse form, and it was preserved in a manuscript from the Moses Gaster Fund under the title: Evreul călător: Aşabec (The Traveling Jew Ashabec) (sic). The manuscript is to be found at the Library of the Romanian Academy under number. 1119, and it dates from the beginning of the 19th century.
The epoch was one in which the ”vagrancy” of poor Jews (who kept infiltrating clandestinely from Galişia and Podolia mainly into Moldova, but also into Wallachia) was not simply discouraged, but even prohibited through ’offices’, ordinances issued by the sovereigns of the Romanian Principalities. Even the Moldavian constitutional act, Regulamentul organic, established since 1832, stipulated a committee authorized to ”eliminate” from the country those Jews that were considered ”vagabonds,” ”so that such individuals might not be able to enter Moldavia again”. It is probable that this socio-economic phenomenon did play a part in the legend’s naturalization on Romanian territory. Discussing the issue of destitute Jews immigrating throughout the 19th century from Galişia into Moldova, Mihail Sadoveanu seems to have intuited the intermingling of historical and mythological matter: ”The ditches along the [Moldavian] roads coming from the parts of Galişia have grown to be places where the offspring of the wandering Jew now get their rest and abandon sabots and rags in”. The author of the versified legend insists not so much on the actual story (the incident between Jesus and Ahasuerus, named Ashabec in the title), as on the Jew’s post factum lament. This is an indication that the details of the legend’s plot were, despite appearances, known in the area during that epoch. For the sake of the few successful poetical images (alongside countless howlers), and in view also of the fact that it has been so far unpublished material, I reproduce it below, in full translation:
Time flies by wasting all living,
I have, of life, grown weary,
But for me there is no relieving,
I walk the earth eternally.
My punishment, forever undelivered,
Is all the world to wander, short of breath;
My journey’s been unending; onward steered,
I am exhausted, and I wish my death.
Centuries pass like days, and yet
I have not earned forgiveness,
Just like my punishment, my guilt was great,
For I proved merciless.
The Savior, while led away,
Bearing His cross was wasted,
And with sad gentle eyes he’d weigh
My house and there he halted.
There on a stone awhile to linger,
The Sinless One alighted,
But cruelly, in insane anger,
I drove Him off, stone-hearted.
I said to Him: ”Away from my house, be off, you of bad stock,
Go to your earned doom,” spoke I,
And with too much accursed talk
Chased Him away.
”Yourself shall walk unendingly,”
Quoth He, the Savior,
Thenceforth I’ve stumbled, erringly,
Through the wide world, a wanderer.
There is no water, no wild place,
No mountain that I’ve left uncross’d,
I trek eternally apace,
And the earth whole I have crossed.
Through elements I go light-footed,
Be it day or night, untouchable,
Of rest deprived, unhalted,
I am on the road unstoppable.
Until the world has wasted the last day,
I’ll know of no rest in my journey
Change my God-given fate no one may,
Nobody fathoms my agony.
No one knows what a strain
Is life lived centuries on end,
No one knows under what pain,
In dire chastising, I did bend.
An interesting version of the legend was published by Ion Heliade-Rãdulescu in 1836, in the first theatre review to be issued in Wallachia. It is an ”imitation” after a German poet whose author was C. G. Filipescu, and the mythic motif is treated in romantic manner. The ”strayed Jew, Ashaber,” (sic!) is tortured by the devil and forgiven by the angel, both sent by Jesus Christ: ”Heartless one, you have chased away the Son of God!” Jesus says onto him. ”So shall you be chased away! A black devil escaped from hell shall hunt you from place to place, with his flaming whip, O Ashaber, and you will not, O ruthless one, be found worth receiving either the sweet comfort of dying or the repose of a grave.”
Ashaber repents eventually and Jesus sends an angel to bring deliverance, allowing him to sleep until the second coming of the Savior. ”’You sleep now,’ says the angel onto him, ’sleep in peace, Ashaber. God’s wrath is not eternal. When you open your eyes again, He shall be here. He whose blood you have seen flowing on Golgotha. He who has now forgiven you!’” (Gazeta Teatrului Naşional — The National Theatre Gazette, No. 3, Bucharest, 1836).
If only implicitly, the legend of the ”Wandering Jew” has a distinct etiological nature. It answers the questions of ”Why” and ”For how long have the Jews been roaming throughout the world at large?” This is due to the fact that, to the popular mind, Ahasuerus is not merely a Jew, but the generic Jew, or all the Jews, great grandsons of those who crucified Jesus: ”His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew, 27: 25). How could one show one’s love for Jesus more convincingly than by demonstrating one’s repulsion towards His murderers?
Since the legend is not only Christian, but Judeo-phobic as well, it was only natural for Jewish writers from Romania to avoid putting the motif of the ”wandering Jew” to literary use. There are a few exceptions, however. One of them is worthy of note. Assuming a tragic destiny, which was eventually to befall him (he died in a gas chamber from Auschwitz, in October 1944), the poet Benjamin Fundoianu (Wechsler) signed a few of his texts with one of the names given the ”wandering Jew,” in Flanders Weeping (Isaac Laquedem), or identified himself with him, as notably in the poem Ulysse, published in Brussels in 1933:
I wandered sightless among lost railway steps,
kept asking, left and right, where lay my journey’s end,
that which would have me go, and leave my home behind
feeding my restlessness on blocks of ice?
Jewish, for sure, still throughout a Ulysses.
An unseen hand plucks off my eyelids,
I cannot get a wink
and have to cry out, until the world comes to an end,
I cannot close my eyes an instant, until the world comes to an end,
I’m nothing but a witness […].
According to Augustine’s well-known theory, the existence of the Jews within the Christian community had to be tolerated, because they were to play the role of ”witnesses of truth” (testes veritatis): they were the witnesses of Jesus’ death and rebirth. The Wandering Jew did indeed, ideally, incarnate the immortal witness of Christ’s passions. This meaning is present not only in the text from 1836 (”He whose blood you have seen flowing on Golgotha”), but also, a century later, in Fundoianu’s poem: ”I cannot close my eyes an instant, until the world comes to an end, I’m nothing but a witness.”
Sorin Mitu, Geneza identităţii naţionale la românii ardeleni [The Birth of National Identity
with the Romanians from Transylvania], Humanitas, Bucharest, 1997,
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