Tony Judt’s final book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, published in 2012, was written in collaboration with fellow historian Timothy Snyder, a collaboration rendered necessary by the fact that Judt was at the time of its composition entering the last stages of the crippling degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). In his foreword to the book Snyder recalls the routine behind the regular Thursday morning conversations with Judt which were to provide its substance: catching the 8.50 train from New Haven, Connecticut to Grand Central, then the subway to the apartment Judt shared with his wife, Jennifer Homans, and sons, Daniel and Nick, with just ten minutes to spare before his 11am appointment to collect his thoughts in a nearby cafe. His last act before leaving the cafe was to wash his hands in scalding water: at this stage of his illness Judt suffered hugely from the cold but Snyder nevertheless wished to be able to shake his hand on arriving.
Thinking the Twentieth Century is arranged in chronological fashion, with each chapter kicking off with a reminiscence from Judt of the various stages of his life and ending with a question-and-answer session with Snyder on some of the historical or political questions the preceding narrative might have raised. The first chapter deals with the Jewish background of both sides of his family. On his name, Tony Robert Judt, he remarks that the Robert came from his very English-centred mother, Stella; as for the Tony, everyone, he says, assumed it was short for Anthony, but no one asked. In fact he was named after his father’s cousin and childhood playmate Toni, who with her sister Bella, was deported from Belgium by the Nazis and died in Auschwitz. The Judts made their journey from Warsaw, then in the Russian empire, to Britain, but with two stops in between, Antwerp in Belgium, and Dublin.
My father’s father Enoch Yudt was a Jewish economic marginal in a state of permanent migration. He had no particular skill except selling; and not much of that. In the 1920s he apparently got by on the black market, between Belgium, Holland and Germany. But things must have got a bit warm for him around 1930, probably because of debt, and perhaps on account of the impending economic collapse; he was obliged to move on. But whither? Enoch had been assured that Eamon de Valera’s newly self-governing Ireland was a welcoming place for Jews and in some measure he had been well-informed. De Valera was very keen to attract commerce to the new Ireland; being a conventionally anti-Semitic Irish Catholic, he naturally assumed that Jews were good at buying and selling and would be an asset to the economy. Accordingly, Jewish immigrants were welcome in Ireland with almost no restrictions, as long as they were willing to work or could find employment.
Enoch Yudt turned up in Dublin, initially leaving his family behind in Antwerp. He set himself up in business, making ties, ladies’ underwear, stockings, schmutters. In time he managed to bring over his family, the last two of whom, my father and his older brother Willy, arrived in Dublin in 1932. My father was one of five children. The eldest was a girl, Fanny; then came four boys – Willy (for Wolff), my father Joseph Isaac, Max and then Thomas Chaim (known as Chaim in Antwerp, Hymie in Dublin and then Tommy in England). My father was Isaac Joseph in Belgium and Ireland, and then Joseph Isaac, in England, or finally just Joe.
He recalls Ireland as idyllic. The family were tenants in a big house just south of Dublin, and my father had never seen such space or greenery. Coming from a Jewish tenement in Antwerp, he and his family had landed in what must have seemed the lap of luxury, an upstairs apartment in a small manor house, overlooking a field. His memories of Ireland are thus entirely colored by this sense of ease and space; and almost completely unclouded by recollections of hardship or prejudice. My father came to Ireland with no English, of course, but with three other languages from his first twelve years in Belgium: Yiddish from home; French from school; and Flemish from the street. Slowly he lost the Flemish, which had gone completely by the time I appeared; he no longer speaks active Yiddish, though the language remains there as a passive presence. Curiously, he retained a lot of French, which prompts the thought that the language you are forced to study is the one that you retain longest when you lack any motive to use the native tongues.
In 1936, after the family business had failed in Dublin, my grandfather’s brother, who had settled in London, invited him to England. And thus my Yudt grandfather transposed his economic incompetence back across the Irish Sea. My father joined him, leaving school at fourteen to work odd jobs.
It was in London, in 1943, that Joe Judt married Stella Dudakoff, and in 1948, in the Salvation Army hospital in Bethnal Green, Tony Robert Judt was born. He died in August 2010.
Perhaps it is best not to overinterpret, or to be oversensitive to, Judt’s remarks on De Valera, or more generally on Irish Catholics and what might be expected from them. If a tendency to think of Jews as being adept at business constitutes anti-Semitism it may well be at the milder end of that very wide category. It is certainly an ism of some kind, which is to say a prejudice: as Judt’s story makes clear, his grandfather was far from good at business, and neither were most of the poor Jews of the London East End where Joe Judt first settled. More positively, those who like to like to think of life in independent Ireland as having been nothing but a sink of poverty, prejudice and oppression from which we have begun to painfully arise only in the present generation, may be interested to observe that for some of those who came here from other parts of Europe where racial hatreds were more virulent it seemed a place of relative calm and innocence.
Patrick Smith writes: In the article “Wandering Jews” in your Issue 60, October 2014, you quote Tony Judt as claiming that Eamon de Valera was anti-Semitic. This claim is quite wrong, As Professor Dermot Keogh’s book “Jews in Twentieth-Century Ireland” shows, de Valera played a major part in ensuring that the Irish Constitution of 1937 included a clause protecting the Jews in Ireland (at a very sensitive time in Europe) by guaranteeing them the same rights as Catholics and Protestants. Keogh also points out that Rabbi Herzog and de Valera were personal friends, “so much so that the future Taoiseach had on occasion hidden in the Rabbi’s house when a fugitive from British or Free State police. Both were eager to see the establishment of an independent Irish republic … The Herzog-de Valera friendship continued until the Rabbi’s death.” Before leaving Ireland Rabbi Herzog publicly stated that the Irish were the only people of Europe never to have raised their hand against the Jews. His son, Chaim Herzog, who was born in and grew up in Ireland before later becoming President of Israel between 1983-1993, wrote in his memoirs that “Ireland has no history of anti-Semitism”. Cham Herzog also contributes a preface to Keogh’s book, which seems as good an assurance of its accuracy in this matter as one could ask for.