This is a photograph taken in 1938 in Cracow, Poland. Within two years at most the old man in the photograph was most likely dead, and most if not all his fellow Jews in Cracow would be living in conditions of near complete desperation, consequent to the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany on September 1 1939, the complete occupation of Poland soon thereafter, and the institution of policies designed more or less to annihilate both the Slavic Polish population and of course the more than two million Jewish people then living in Poland.
Although the image looks as if it could have been taken straight from a newspaper of the time, so authentically papery and faded and grey does it look, it was in fact recently reproduced from a book of photographs of Jewish life in Eastern Europe taken just before the outbreak of WWII. The photographer, Roman Vishniac, was commissioned by an American Jewish agency to make a pictorial record of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before it was too late, it being fairly obvious by 1938 that time was not on the side of Eastern European Jews. The lucky ones, like the archetypal figure of a modern-day Job in Joseph Roth’s legendary novel of the same name, had made it across the ocean to the “goldene Medina” (yes, Medina of Moslem fame), the U. S. of A. Six million of the rest were unable or unwilling to tear their lives up by the roots, again, and take to the road of the Wandering Jew.
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So deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche is the reality of wandering that the very word has a deep symbolic significance. As he or she is alluded to in the Hexagram of The Wanderer in the I Ching, the wanderer really has no home, the wanderer is truly a rootless cosmopolitan. We might note that it seems that ever more people in our day have to live the life of a wanderer, fortunate indeed if they ever reach a welcoming shore and a home they can call their own. Jewish people have also learned how to find consolation and a much more fulfilling life in their next “home from home”. For example, had Biblical Joseph not been sold into slavery in Egypt, his family might have starved to death when they had to leave Canaan because of famine. Similarly, the horrific end to the rich Jewish life in the Iberian Peninsula had the unintended consequence of bringing many thousands of Jews to relative safety in Turkey, much closer to the Holy Land. The expulsion surely contributed to the extraordinary flourishing of Kabbalistic mythology in Safed, which we will be discussing on Saturday.
In our photograph, then, all this symbolism should be readily apparent. It is a classic image, mystical in its depth and intensity, perhaps due to our, the viewers, knowledge of what awaits this old man and his people within two years from the photograph’s being taken. The old man, a rabbi, knows what we know, however, and the briefest glance at the dishevelled and dislocated architectural background, like a context to the photograph, only adds to the sense of desolation that so often is associated with eternal wandering. A Mediaeval legend that must have contributed significantly to the idea of the Jew as always leaving, never to be trusted, and generally a despised Other is the Legend of the Wandering Jew, deriving from the completely unfounded story of a Jewish inhabitant of Jerusalem’s making an archetypal refusal to give water to the suffering, exhausted, and thirsty Jesus as he proceeded up the Stations of the Cross to Calvary and his martyrdom. For his refusal, it is said that Jesus condemned the Jew to a life as an Eternal Wanderer, knowing no rest and with no place to call home.
Roman Vishniac bethought himself to ask the old Rabbi in Cracow how long he had been wandering.
“From the beginning,” he replied.
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