They may have been among the last of the wandering Jews.
One hundred years ago, the Fusgeyers were idealistic young Jews who fled persecution in their native Romania. Traveling strictly on foot (“Fusgeyer” is Yiddish for “one who goes by foot”), they trekked across 1,500 miles of hostile territory, ultimately reaching safe harbor in Western Europe and passage to freedom, the majority settling in North America.
Theirs has been a largely unsung tale in the annals of Jewish history. Now, Los Angeles-based writer Stuart Tower brings the Fusgeyers’ story to life in his new novel “The Wayfarers.”
Says Tower of the Fusgeyers: “The thing about them was they were organized. They had food committees, entertainment committees. They carried a Star of David banner and loudly protested mistreatment of Jews all the way.”
In an era when pogroms were commonplace, and Jews lived in fear of imperious czars and dukes, that kind of chutzpah merits some attention.
Tower’s interest in the Fusgeyers goes back to the mid-1970s when he first read Irving Howe’s classic “The World of Our Fathers.”
Tower’s book recounts the fictional lives of one group of Fusgeyers (there were more than 70 groups altogether, each comprising up to 100 people). Along the way, they encounter mistreatment at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian armies and local gendarmes. They also run, Zelig-like, into many noted figures of the day, from Franz Kafka to Buffalo Bill Cody.
“They knew nothing about where they were going,” says Tower of the real Fusgeyers, “and had to cross a divided, anti-Semitic Europe. But as Alexis de Toqueville once said, the happy and powerful don’t go into exile.”
The first of the Fusgeyers departed Romania in 1899, the last in 1914. The groups were diverse, including one composed entirely of women. They often carried firearms for emergencies, but they tended to fight oppression using more subtle means, including a remarkable sophisticated sense of PR.
“They talked about poverty and pogroms,” says Tower, “and eventually word reached the West. Even Theodore Roosevelt had his secretary of state write a letter to the king of Romania about the mistreatment of the Jews.”
Not that the European masses ever took the Jews under their wings. The Fusgeyers continually faced myriad problems:
Some were falsely imprisoned; the local military often pressed others into forced road duty, and the Romanians were devilishly happy to see their Jews go. But they never lost hope, never cowed in the face of danger.
“Most had a real leaning toward religion,” says Tower. “They prayed every day; they kept kosher: They knew they were Jews.”
Tower frames his story around a modern American Jewish man from Boston researching his own family background, and discovering a Fusgeyer link. He even travels to Romania in search of answers.
Tower’s own life shares several of those traits, though he himself is not descended from Fusgeyers.
A native of Quincy, Mass., Tower describes himself as a “100 percent full-blooded Jew, brought up Orthodox in a town of immigrants.” His grandfather founded the town’s first synagogue, and his own Jewish education bored deeply into him.
After earning a degree in educational psychology at Emerson College in Boston, Tower launched a career as a writer, educator and consultant.
He moved to California more than 40 years ago, and has lived in the Bay Area and down south. He now calls L.A. home.
As he travels the country promoting his book, Tower has been pleasantly surprised at how many people have approached him, telling their own tales of their Fusgeyer ancestors. It means he’s reaching people.
“They were true heroes,” he says of his favorite wayfarers.
“Theirs is a story that must be told.”
“The Wayfarers” by Stuart Tower (550 pages, The Lighthouse Press, $20)