Between Rivne and Jerusalem: How Amos Oz wrote a family history that defines a nation

Israeli author Amos Oz watched his daughter venture to where he has never been: the Holocaust-ravaged Ukrainian hometown of his mother that was highlighted is his memoir.

December 12, 2014 11:49
3 minute read.
Limmud FSU hosts Amos Oz.

(Left to right) International Fellowship of Christians and Jews Executive Vice President, Jeff Kaye; Limmud FSU Founder and Executive Committee Chairman, Chaim Chesler; Nili Oz; Amos Oz; Limmud FSU International Steering Committee Chairman, Matthew Bronfman; Limmud FSU Executive Director, Roman Koga. (photo credit: DOV LIEBER)

Once when asked what his stories are about, Amos Oz said, “In one word, families, in two, sad families.” In his best-selling memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz brings to life his family’s dark history, from their escape from European anti-Semitism, to their struggle to survive in a politically and militarily volatile Jerusalem before the birth of Israel. Oz’s mother is at the core of the memoir—a woman of immense sadness, depicted as a dream-within-a-dream character, subsumed in silence and sorrow, until, in January, 1952, she ends her life by overdosing in her sister’s apartment on Ben Yehudah Street.

Though Oz succeeds in his memoir to vividly describe his mother’s rural hometown in Eastern Europe, he has never visited the place.  Recently however, Oz’s daughter Prof. Fania Oz-Salzberger journeyed into the world of her father’s book, to the Ukrainian town of Rivne (Rovno) where her grandmother, also named Fania, grew up.

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On Wednesday in Tel Aviv, Oz watched a screening of a new documentary chronicling his daughter’s visit to Rivne, which he said “warmed his heart.” He watched his daughter visit the places of her grandmother’s childhood, including the house at 31 Dubinska Street, where she and her sisters were raised, the Tarbut school, where they were educated, and to the nearby Sosenki Forest, where some 22,000 Jews from the town, including many members of the Mussman family, were slaughtered over two days in 1941.

At each stop along the way, Fania, a history professor at Haifa University, reads excerpts of her father’s book and sings Hebrew songs as if to revive, even for a few minutes, the obliterated world of Rivne’s Jews. At one point in the documentary she says, “I want both Rivne and Jerusalem.” Yet only the latter still really exits, and the former exists, as she later says, “only in my father’s book.”

The trip to Rivne and the documentary were organized by Limmud FSU, a nonprofit founded eight years ago to serve young Russian-speaking Jews around the world. Oz called the film, produced by Israel photojournalist Eli Mandelbaum, “a slice of living history,”  and thanked Limmud FSU for erecting a plaque on the family home in Rivne—one of many plaques on buildings in Eastern Europe that commemorate the forsaken but not forgotten Jewish tenants. 

The plaque on the 31 Dubinska Street, is an effect, one of many ripples caused by the writing of A Tale of Love and Darkness. The whole effect is the safeguarding and revival of a pivotal moment in Jewish history.   

Oz said he is neither the writer nor the maker of the 150 pages of A Tale of Love and Darkness that showcase Rivne:

“One hundred and fifty pages of my book, A Tale of Life and Darkness, are devoted to the town of Rovno. The real writers of those pages were the three sisters – my mother, Fania, and my aunts, Sonia and Hayah. I was simply the pipeline. The credit also goes to our wonderful grandparents, who we all called Papa, and our to grandmother, who we all called mama. We were a very small family [in Israel], we were a huge family in Rivne, but everyone was murdered in Sosenki. Dozens of the family died there.”

Oz, therefore, compelled to faithfully write his family’s history, parenthetically brings to life the history of European Jews on the eve of the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel. And this perhaps, is the real reason for the book’s success—translated into dozens of languages,including Arabic and a bootleg Kurdish version, and one of Israel’s greatest selling books of all time—A Tale of Love and Darkness is the most genuine of a most universal of tales.

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