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Far from Where? On the History and Meanings of a Classic Jewish Refugee Joke
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Far from Where?
On the History and Meanings of a Classic Jewish Refugee Joke

Three weary Jewish refugees stood before the Paris representative of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“Where are you all going?” he asked them.

“I’m on my way to Rome,” said the first.

“London is my destination,” said the second.

“My plan is to go to South Africa,” said the third.

“South Africa? Why so far?” the agent asked wonderingly.

“Far? Far from where?” wistfully countered the refugee.

Nathan Ausubel, A Treasury of Jewish Folklore (New York, 1948), 25.

1. The history of the joke

During and immediately after World War II, a number of Jewish refugee jokes began to appear in anthologies of humor. Three jokes in particular, which probably began to circulate in about 1939, have become familiar landmarks in collections of Jewish humor published from the 1940’s to the present. The first two, “Another globe” and “Morning or afternoon,” broke into print in 1941 and 1943 respectively, and deal with thwarted efforts to escape from Europe. Both of these jokes end with a question that appears to disregard some basic reality at hand, and which sets in relief the hopelessness of the refugee’s situation:

A Viennese Jew entered the office of a travel bureau and said to one of the clerks, “I want a steamship ticket.”

“Where to?” asked the clerk.

“Where to? Yes, where to?” repeated the Jew meditatively. “I wish I could answer this question. Let me look at your globe, if you don’t mind.”

Thereupon the Jew turned the globe around several times, studying carefully countries and continents. After a few minutes, he raised his eyes to the clerk and said, “Pardon me, have you anything else to offer?” 1 [End Page 143]

A harassed attaché of the American Consulate at Lisbon told the story of a gray-faced little man who leaned over his desk one morning and anxiously inquired: “Can you tell me if there is any possibility I could get entrance to your wonderful country?”

The attaché pressed by thousands of such requests and haggard from sleepless nights, roughly replied: “Impossible now. Come back in another ten years.”

The little refugee moved toward the door, stopped, turned and, with a wan smile, asked, “Morning or afternoon?” 2

The joke which completes this little triptych first appeared in an anthology of Jewish humor in 1948, in a version which dealt with the situation of the Jewish refugee in the aftermath of the Second World War. It too ends with a question:

Three weary Jewish refugees stood before the Paris representative of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“Where are you all going?” he asked them.

“I’m on my way to Rome,” said the first.

“London is my destination,” said the second.

“My plan is to go to South Africa,” said the third.

“South Africa? Why so far?” the agent asked wonderingly.

“Far? Far from where?” wistfully countered the refugee. 3

An earlier version of “Far from where?” had been aired on the radio—along with “Another globe”—in the spring of 1939, when writer-journalist Alexander Woollcott told these jokes on a “Town Crier” broadcast he made in support of the Wagner-Rogers Bill about which congressional subcommittees were then conducting hearings. 4 This bill would have enabled 20,000 children (primarily Jewish) to flee from [End Page 144] Germany to the United States, outside of the restrictive immigration quotas. It met with fierce opposition from patriotic organizations, whose arguments resemble those we sometimes hear today against admitting refugees to potential havens, and the bill was ultimately withdrawn, with the result that 20,000 children who might have been rescued from the Holocaust perished instead. (Woollcott’s version of “Far from where?” is included in the “publication history” of the joke provided at the end of the present article.)

2. Two interpretations of the joke

Unlike “Another globe” and “Morning or afternoon,” the “Far from where?” joke can be understood in two different ways, and in this respect, is a richer and more interesting story.

One interpretation was proposed by Alan M. Dershowitz in Chutzpah (1991), in which he wrote:

The concept...