Critical Essays Elie Wiesel and the Wandering Jew


A familiar figure in European lore is Ahasuerus, a mortal doomed to live forever. His legend, first published in Leiden, the Netherlands, in an anonymous monograph dated 1602, predates the printed version and describes a Jew from Hamburg who had been a contemporary of Jesus Christ, who was crucified around 30 A. D. When Jerusalem's mockers demanded that Jesus was a false claimant of the title of Messiah or savior of the human race, Ahasuerus joined the mob and taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion. In token of the Jew's rejection, Jesus promised that Ahasuerus would remain alive until the Second Coming, when the Messiah would return from heaven to fulfill biblical prophecy.

The haunting story of Ahasuerus spread over Europe and found its way into numerous artistic and literary works — in direct reference and subtle allusion. The eternal wanderer, known in French as le juif errant, spawned a body of lore that is the opposite of the Faust legend: Instead of avoiding death, the Wandering Jew, the only living witness to Jesus' execution, craves an end to the curse of immortality, which he bears like a cross in his search for a final resting place. The modern critical community draws parallels between the miraculously long-lived Jew and the restless Elie Wiesel, whose journalistic and humanitarian travels keep him perpetually on the road, often for the purpose of drawing to the world's attention an untenable condition that threatens nations with war, famine, starvation, or genocide. The potential for romanticism dims beside the real man, an obviously weary benefactor of humanity who expects neither praise nor remuneration for his crusade. The comparison with the Wandering Jew ennobles Dr. Wiesel, a stalwart witness to the world's most dreadful era of systematic annihilation of an innocent race.