Growing up with Yoram Kaniuk

Written by a member of the Palmah, the play ‘1948’ takes us through the author’s early life, which coincided with the state’s early life.

'1948' play 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
'1948' play 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoram Kaniuk has been writing wonderfully emotive books for more than half a century. But it took him over 60 years to finally get down to writing about his personal – very personal – experiences as a mostly bewildered but determined 17-year-old member of the famed Harel Brigade of the Palmah, fighting in the War of Independence.
Now 81 and, at long last, gaining big-time recognition for his contribution to literature here, Kaniuk’s latest bestselling book, 1948, which came out last year, is being put on the stage. This week the first shows of the eponymous play based on the book start at the Haifa Theater.
The English version of 1948, which has yet to be published, describes the purely historical relevance of the book in plain language. “Whether it happened or not, one way or another, no memory has a country, no country has a memory. I can remember or invent memory, and at the same time invent a country or think that in the past it was different.
There is no country that can be different if it was first not different.”
The book is replete with anecdotal items, like pictures from a comic book. There are some bloodcurdling situations and some hysterically comical incidents, although mostly of a very dark nature. All these come through strongly in the play, which is directed by Noya Lancet, and uses a fine cast of young actors including Keren Or, Sivan Kochavi, Ron Richter and Yonatan Schwartz, all of whom come from the Young Haifa Group. They take the very private story of the book and turn it into a collective tale, the story of our lives in this part of the world.
The play takes us through Kaniuk’s early life, which coincided with the state’s early life. The writer highlights the importance of the Holocaust survivors to him.
First says he mainly joined the Palmah in order to fight so that the survivors could have a country to call their home, as no other country was willing to take them in. Later he worked on a ship that brought the survivors to Israel and says he felt a strong affinity to them from the start. “They were survivors, and so was I. I had survived the War of Independence,” he observes.
The subject is definitively heavy, but the play is liberally seasoned with humor. In the book, Kaniuk wryly notes that his early military training had him and his comrades without arms – there were few firearms to be had in pre-state Palestine – training by the sea to help illegal Jewish immigrants to make it here. But when the real war came, he found himself fighting in Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Hills. In the play, as in the book, Kaniuk examines his elusive memories of that time through the spectrum of his age, the age of Israel which was born from that terrible war.
Lancet has forged a stage production that feeds directly off the original. “All the spoken parts are taken straight from the book,” says Kaniuk with undisguised delight.
“It’s fantastic. I really enjoyed watching the first run. I think it conveys the book and the spirit of those times really well.”
The play includes songs of the time and references to current affairs and what teenagers did in 1940s Palestine. Above all, 1948 is a human story told firsthand, whether history likes it or not.
1948 will be performed at the Haifa Theater on May 21-24, June 15-16 and 18-20. All shows start at 8:30 p.m. For tickets and more information: (04) 860- 0500 and