The legend of the Wandering Jew, of his miraculous longevity and of the curse that drives him to travel ceaselessly through the centuries until the Second Coming of Christ, appears to have originated at a relatively late date and only in certain countries of Central and Western Europe. No trace of such a figure can be found in medieval literature. The first records of his real or imagined appearances in European history date from the early Renaissance, or, more precisely, from the Reformation. There were, however, two other legends concerning an individual of miraculous longevity current in the Middle Ages, and these may have served as a basis for the later Wandering Jew legend.1
The first of the two legends, which may ultimately be midrashic in origin (it also appears in the Koran), concerns the craftsman who made the Golden Calf while the Israelites were in the desert. When Moses came down from Sinai, according to the story, he cursed this craftsman, Alsamir by name, for what he had done and condemned him to wander the world until the end of days. When approached by another human being in the course of these wanderings, Alsamir was enjoined to cry out, like a medieval leper: “Noli me tangere! Do not touch me!”
The second of the two legends has some historic underpinning. It tells of an Armenian bishop who came to Western Europe from the Near East during the time of the Crusades. After visiting Rome and Paris, the Bishop went on to St. Albans in England, where a member of his retinue reported that one of Jesus’ disciples—the Apostle John, who had been his favorite—was still alive in Armenia, thus fulfilling Jesus prophecy that John would remain alive until the Second Coming. (It should be noted that this legend appears to have originated in a region—south of the Caucasus—where cases of astounding longevity continue to be reported to this day.)
Though there are no references in medieval texts to the Wandering Jew, some later chronicles claim that such a figure had already appeared by the Renaissance—in one instance that he had been identified in Strasbourg as early as 1250, and in others that he first appeared in Brussels around the middle of the 15th century, at the court of Philip the Good. Both these assertions, however, occur in texts that were written and published much later, and neither of the supposed appearances is attested to by any contemporary witness or document. It was not for another hundred years, in the 1550’s, that the legend of the Wandering Jew really began to spread and gain credibility, thanks to the testimony of persons of good faith who supposedly met and conversed with him or who sincerely believed that they had. In these legends, he goes by a variety of names: Cartaphilus, Simon of Cyrene, Isaac Laquedem, and—most mysteriously—Ahasuerus. How the name of the king of Persia became attached to this legend is nowhere explained.
Of that first reputed appearance in Strasbourg in 1250 virtually no details are given, but the account of the second episode—in Brussels—is extremely specific. It is supposed to have occurred during the solemn annual performance of the Mystery play, The Passion of Christ, which takes place during Holy Week. In this play, Jesus, tottering beneath the weight of the cross he must carry, turns toward a man in the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, and beseeches his help. Simon rejects the plea with a taunt, to which Jesus replies: “Go straight ahead and wander, and you will never cease to wander until the end of days, without ever finding any respite or being able to cease your fatal wanderings.”
According to the chronicle which relates this story, the actor playing the part of Jesus had just finished speaking these lines when a moan was heard from the foot of the dais on which Duke Philip was sitting. A stranger in Oriental dress was found lying there unconscious, and was carried to the duke’s palace. The next day, having recovered from his faint, the stranger was invited to attend a banquet at the ducal table. Here it was observed that the stranger’s forehead was covered with a bandage—supposedly to conceal an unsightly scar (the Cain motif) and that he did not eat, but only pretended to do so, dropping his food under the table so that not a morsel touched his lips.
The next night, one of the duke’s pages was amazed to come upon the stranger fighting with the duke’s dogs for possession of some bones that had been left out for them. He was doing so by the light of a fiery cross that was now revealed, the bandage having come undone, in the middle of his forehead. This same motif is repeated in another report, published in the 19th century, which claims that the Wandering Jew appeared in 1533 in the Dutch university town of Leyden. There he is described as follows: “One could count on his brow sixteen clearly traced furrows. In the last of these, his skin was puckered so as to form a small cross, so deeply graven there that it could easily be mistaken for a curious scar.”
Up until this point, the reports, even when detailed, belong to the category of folklore and have no pretensions to historical accuracy. Toward the middle of the 16th century, however, the appearance of persons believed to be the Wandering Jew not only became more frequent, but were accompanied by some semblance of documentation. Often, they were attested to by several trustworthy witnesses who have left evidence of unimpeachable historical value. In 1547, for instance, the Bishop of Schleswig testified that he had met the Wandering Jew in Hamburg and questioned him in detail on his personal memories of his meeting with Christ. Another interview with the mysterious wanderer is likewise recorded a few years later in Strasbourg. In 1575, two diplomatic representatives of the Duchy of Holstein claimed to have encountered the wanderer in Madrid, in spite of the decree of 1492 that expelled all Jews from Spain. In 1599, the Wandering Jew was reportedly seen in Vienna, in 1601 in the Hanseatic city of Luebeck, then in 1610 in the Baltic Duchy of Livonia, in Cracow, and even in Moscow. In 1640, he reappeared in Brussels.
It is noteworthy that most of these sightings occurred in areas of Europe that were already predominantly Protestant or, like Brussels, Strasbourg, and Vienna, close to Protestant areas. Moscow, Cracow, and Madrid are exceptions, though in Madrid the mysterious stranger supposedly revealed his identity only to visiting diplomats of a foreign Protestant power. In most recorded instances the wanderer was well received by practitioners of the new Lutheran faith, which would accord with the legend that he had repented of his crime and become a Christian, and hence need not be banished or confined to the ghetto as other Jews would have been: “Immediately after the Pentecost, the Apostles began to preach the Gospel and the wretched Cartaphilus, who had already witnessed the many miracles that occurred at the time of the death and the resurrection of the Son of Man, felt the urge to expiate his sin. He therefore asked to be baptized and received his baptism by the hand of Ananias, who had already baptized St. Paul. And he was thus baptized under the name of Joseph, in order to replace Cartaphilus, the name under which he had been cursed.”
During the 1700’s and 1800’s there was a marked increase in supposed manifestations of the Wandering Jew (accompanied by more serious attempts at documentation) throughout Central and parts of Western Europe and especially in the various German states as well as in Bohemia, Moravia, Alsace, Lorraine, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Denmark, and even England. These appearances coincide rather significantly with the vast westward migration of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Jews that began around 1640 and continued until after the Napoleonic wars. Though it has been neglected by many social historians, this movement greatly enriched popular tradition and iconography through the addition of such colorful characters as the Packjude (peddler) and the Schnorrer (mendicant) who became well-known figures in the market towns of Central Europe—especially in cities like Leipzig, which held annual trade fairs—and even along the highways and in the more remote villages and hamlets of certain regions.
The Swedish and Muscovite invasions of Lithuania and Poland, the revolts of the Cossacks and their massacres of Jews in the Ukraine and Eastern Poland, and finally the successive dismemberments of the kingdom of Poland, had reduced the Jewish communities of these vast regions of Eastern Europe to extreme poverty. Tens of thousands of their members, both rich and poor, were seeking escape to safer and more hospitable lands. Most of these refugees headed toward the West, but some also went into Scandinavia and the Baltic area, while others fled eastward into the interior of Russia, and still others went south, into Hungary and the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman empire. Among Sephardic Jews of Near Eastern extraction, family names like Eskanazi still testify to the infusion during this period of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Jews into the Sephardic communities of such cities as Sarajevo, Salonica, Constantinople, and Smyrna. Another common Jewish surname, Polack (or Bolag in the Allemanic dialect), is also traceable to this period of the settlement of Polish Jews in the German-speaking communities of Central and Western Europe.
Between 1648 and 1700, Jewish immigrants from Poland were well received, on the whole, in a few cities of the Hanseatic League and in most of the Protestant states of Germany, whose Jewish communities were just beginning to recover from the destruction and impoverishment of the Thirty Years’ War. Jews were also received with relative cordiality in the Netherlands; in Altona, which was still part of the kingdom of Denmark; in Bohemia and Moravia; and also in some Catholic areas of the Rhine-land and Bavaria, where they were permitted to settle in existing Jewish communities. Traders who had capital to dispose of could get a permit to settle fairly easily and on a permanent basis, and the same was true of tailors, leather workers, glass blowers, cutters of gems and lenses, furriers, dyers, and printers, who were in a position to begin practicing their trades immediately. Many a Jewish family name, such as Ferber or Lederer, still commemorates an ancestor who was granted such a permit. Others who were allowed to settle with relative ease, though only in communities which could prove that their services were really needed, were rabbis, teachers, and other scholars and community functionaries, like cantors or ritual butchers.
Among the more educated refugees who were granted such permits, and thereby saved from an outcast, wandering existence, one finds a considerable number of printers and proofreaders, who contributed a great deal to the expansion and success of Jewish presses in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, especially in Amsterdam, Frankfurt-am-Main, Prague, and ultimately in London. One also finds the names of many rabbis who had come originally from Poland listed in the archives of nearly all the major Jewish communities of Central and Western Europe. Rabbi Jonathan Eisenschuetz, for example, whose legal opinions are still cited in Orthodox communities, lived in the city of Metz, in Lorraine, from 1741 to 1750; and Rabbi Judah Loeb, born in the Polish town of Krotoschin, lived in Austria, Germany, and Holland, before being appointed to the community of Carpentras, in Southern France. Rabbis of Polish origin are likewise known to have settled in Venice, Livorno, Ferrara, and other Italian cities with expanding Jewish communities.
As Prussia, Austria, and Russia proceeded with the first stage of Poland’s dismemberment, the emigration of Polish Jews increased in volume. So massive and socially indiscriminate an influx soon began to pose serious problems of economic integration and assimilation both to Jewish communities doing their best to absorb the refugees, and to local authorities in those regions where the immigrants were seeking to settle. Between 1773 and 1784, Prussia, which had at first been very hospitable to Jews, particularly in Berlin, Koenigsberg, and Frankfurt-am-Oder, felt obliged to expel some 7,000 of the poorest refugees from the provinces of Western Poland which it had recently annexed, forcing them back into the reduced and impoverished remnant of Central Poland. Austria then followed suit, expelling some 2,000 Jews from Galicia.
Further instances of expulsion can be multiplied, not only from German states but also from Jewish communities which were forbidden in most cases to harbor outsiders for any length of time. It has been estimated that there were at least 5,000 of these homeless Jews of Polish origin wandering about the highways of Central Europe in the latter half of the 18th century.
Many of these unfortunates died of exhaustion and privation; others were absorbed into the underworld, where their existence is still commemorated by a number of Yiddish words—Schlemiehl, Ganovenehre, Dalles—which have found their way into German slang. Still others, in despair, accepted baptism or became followers of the false messiah, Jacob Frank, whose adherents enjoyed a remarkable if somewhat ambiguous freedom for a while, both in Catholic Poland and in a few cities of Catholic Western and Southern Germany. Frank held court with a guard of honor in the city of Offenbach, like a princeling of the Holy Roman Empire. (The mysterious 18th-century Baal Shem of London, famous in his day as an alchemist and kabbalistic miracle worker, appears to have been a Frankist and, though born in Bavaria, was very probably of Polish extraction, since nearly all the Frankists were Polish Jews.)
In the memoirs of his travels in Central and Western Europe, the great Russian writer Karamzin, a typical representative of 18th-century Enlightenment liberalism, described with great vividness his contrasting impressions of the Jewish community of Frankfurt-am-Main, which then belonged to the kingdom of Prussia and could harbor wandering Polish Jews more freely than other Jewish communities of the area. Karamzin relates how, on the one hand, Frankfurt’s Jewish upper class (which then included the founder of the House of Rothschild, among others) numbered so many ardent theatergoers in its ranks that its boycott of a performance of The Merchant of Venice could force the local theater to stop playing it. On the other hand, Karamzin describes his shock at the extreme destitution of many of the Jews he found wandering in the streets of the ghetto.
Even the more benign authorities would not provide more than temporary shelter. Thus, the Prince-Bishop of Wuerzburg, in Catholic Bavaria, was relatively merciful in his policy of admitting Jewish vagabonds into his territory, but would not allow them to establish themselves in any numbers on a permanent basis. As a result, several thousand Betteljuden (“beggar Jews”) wandered constantly from one community to another within his territories, frequently organized in nomadic bands whose appearance terrified travelers and local residents alike. So prevalent was the problem that many Jewish communities of Bavaria and Franconia obtained permission to build special almshouses where the vagabonds could be sheltered for at least a few days. The community official entrusted with the task of distributing billeting permits was known, in the local Judeo-German dialect, as a Plettengabbe (derived from the French word billet, meaning a ticket, and the Hebrew word Gabbay, meaning a community official or administrator).
In a single year, the Jewish communities of the Wuerzburg area alone distributed 68,000 such billeting tickets. Even the tiny Jewish community of Goisheim, with a total of 26 families, distributed 650 tickets in the course of a single year, which, taking into account the food, clothing, and other charitable services offered, added up to an enormous contribution from each householder. One resident of the town, the Jewish bookseller Joseph Isaac, published a pamphlet in 1791 (“Reflections on the Betteljuden and their more Efficient Care”) in which he proposed to teach the wanderers useful trades and skills in order to integrate them more easily into existing communities. Oddly enough, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre had published a similar pamphlet a few decades earlier proposing to make better use of the French nobility by training its members to become competent civil servants rather than useless courtiers in Versailles.
In France, the situation was on the whole less serious than it was in the German and Austrian areas, except for Alsace, Lorraine, and the former Papal territories of the Comtat Venaissin in Provence. Here the existence of Jewish communities that had been prominent since the Middle Ages seemed to attract the more venturesome—or the desperate—among the vagrants, causing great hardship to local Jewish residents. Thus, in the year 1773, a small army of several hundred Betteljuden, most of whom had come originally from Poland, tried to force their way into the four historic communities of the Comtat Venaissin, after having been rejected everywhere else. The communities of Avignon, Carpentras, and Cavaillon managed to fight them off, whereupon they attacked the small community of Isle-sur-Sorgues, which agreed under duress to accept about a quarter of the group—the sick, pregnant women, and families with infants. The following day, the rest of the group returned in a threatening mood, and the terrified Jewish community had to summon the royal police force to drive the attackers away. Four days later, another band of about a hundred vagabonds descended on the same community; its members barricaded themselves in their houses until the police from nearby Avignon came to their rescue.
During the period just before and after the French revolution, these roving bands of Betteljuden constituted a public danger. In 1790, a year after the fall of the Bastille, the municipality of Lixheim complained that “squadrons” of vagabonds were arriving daily, and the problem continued to preoccupy Central and Western European authorities on and off until the middle of the 19th century.
Eventually, thanks to the expanding economy, the liberalization of various political regimes, and the rapid growth of many urban centers in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, the few thousand Betteljuden who had survived their wanderings and privations managed to become integrated into this part of Europe, along with new arrivals from the East. Nevertheless, as late as 1821, in the Canton of Aarau in supposedly freedom-loving and liberal Switzerland, there were only two small rural communities, Lengnau and Oberendingen, in which Jews were permitted to reside. It was in that Canton in the small town of Mumpf that a kindly innkeeper took pity on a young couple with a small child who came to his door one night in the midst of a raging snowstorm. Because the wife was in an advanced state of pregnancy, the innkeeper let them in, though it was forbidden by law to house these homeless Jews. That very night (January 28, 1821) a daughter was born to the couple. She grew up to become the world-famous actress, Rachel—the toast of Paris, and a great patron of literature and the arts.
Given this historical background, it is not difficult to conclude that more than one unfortunate Polish Jew must have been tempted from time to time to exploit the credulity of some gullible Gentile by claiming to be that legendary Wandering Jew who would be granted the hospitality denied all other Jews. The fact that nearly all popular representations of the Wandering Jew in 19th-century prints and cartoons portray him in the traditional fur cap of the Jews of Poland and the Ukraine would seem to argue as much.
After all, these nomadic Jews of the 18th century were not all uneducated vagrants. There were individuals among them like the philosopher Solomon Maimon, now remembered as a disciple of Kant and a brilliant representative of the Jewish Enlightenment, who experienced several years of impoverished wanderings before being allowed to settle in Prussia. The scholar Zalkind Hurwitz, too, made the trek from Kovno, where he had been born into a family of Lithuanian rabbis, to Berlin, to Metz, then finally to Paris, where, in 1789, he published his historical Apology on Behalf of the Jews, which proved extremely influential in bringing about the emancipation of French Jewry.
Individuals of this caliber, if they happened to be mistaken for the Wandering Jew, would have been able to answer with ease, and no doubt with some mischievous irony too, the questions that might be put to them about their alleged seventeen centuries of wanderings. As to their fabulous longevity and astonishing appearance of youth, there was an explanation available in the popular folklore: “Each time the Wandering Jew reaches the age of a hundred years, an apparently incurable disease overcomes him, leading to a loss of consciousness from which he is then reborn, fully cured and again with the physical appearance that he had at the time of Christ’s Passion. . . .”
1 An obvious underlying source for the motif of the Wandering Jew is of course the biblical story of Cain, who in punishment for the murder of his brother Abel was marked and condemned to wander the earth. In later Christian typology, Cain's fate was seen as a prefiguration of the punishment meted out to the Jews for their part in the crucifixion of Jesus.