Their Precious

To maintain their sanity during their Egyptian captivity, a handful of Israeli POWs translated JRR Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' into Hebrew.

gollum 88  (photo credit: )
gollum 88
(photo credit: )
'Falling into captivity presents one with a number of choices," former Phantom pilot Rami Harpaz says, sitting in the comfort of his home in the Jezreel Valley kibbutz of Hazorea. "You can either pity yourself and wallow in misery, or do something to organize your time as constructively as conditions allow." Shot down between Suez and Cairo during the War of Attrition and held captive for more than three years, Harpaz chose the latter. Of the two Hebrew translations of JRR Tolkien's classic book The Hobbit, one of them was painstakingly written down in Egyptian exercise books by Harpaz and nine other Israeli prisoners-of-war languishing in a Cairo jail. They were eventually released in a prisoner swap brokered after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. To tackle translating Tolkien's The Hobbit, the forerunner to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was the brainchild of Harpaz. On the back cover of the prisoners' Hebrew version of The Hobbit, however, no name appears for the translation - just a mention that it was a group effort by Israeli prisoners-of-war during their years of captivity in the Abaseyar prison. The six pilots and navigators, one reserve army officer, a paratrooper and two soldiers were grateful to have something to occupy their minds and help pass the lonely weeks and months. The six airmen had all bailed out of crippled aircraft before being captured by Egyptian forces on the ground, and the other four servicemen were captured in various ambushes. Held in solitary confinement for six months before being moved to join the other Israeli captives, Harpaz undertook a few other projects before taking on Tolkien - like working on the development of machinery suitable for the kibbutz plastics industry. "The walls of my cell, from floor to half-way up, were painted with green oil-based paint, so using a pencil I did all my calculations on the wall," he says, reminiscing. Some years later, his ideas were incorporated into the kibbutz's plastics factory. Thirty years after his confinement in an Egyptian prison cell, one can find Harpaz at the factory, directing the research and development side of the industry. Following his six months in solitary confinement, Harpaz joined the rest of the Israeli prisoners, among them Dan Avidan, the reserve officer. Avidan was a member of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, a few minutes' drive from Hazorea, in the forest behind his birthplace, Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek. Another of the prisoners, Yitzhak Pe'er, was born in America and had also lived on a kibbutz, as had Menachem Ayni, a Technion graduate. The servicemen organized themselves into two classes and began to study. They were both the students and their own teachers. "Menachem taught math and physics, Yitzhak taught English and I taught chemistry. When we finally got home we received credits as if we had studied first-year at the Technion," he recounted. HARPAZ READ a total of 304 books during his "residency" at Abaseyar. One day, a parcel arrived for Pe'er - a birthday present from his family in America containing copies of Tolkien's The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. "We enjoyed the books so much that we decided to translate them for others," he said as he fondly handled the brown-covered exercise books. "We finished The Hobbit after four months. Basically, we became two groups - those who translated and those who read the translation - and for this reason we decided not to translate the trilogy, as it was important to keep the group together as one unit," said the lifetime kibbutznik. The majority of the translation was carried out in the prison exercise yard. "Two of us would sit out in the sun reading sentence by sentence in English, but out loud giving a word-for-word literal translation into Hebrew while another would be jotting it all down. We had many arguments, even shouting matches, about how this or that should be translated. I think one of our total failures was the translation of the songs, as none of us really had sufficient talent to do them the justice they deserve. It was extremely difficult to translate idioms and other special words, as we wanted not only the words but also the mood of the author." For example, they had difficulty deciding how translate "troll," or what should be the plural of Hobbit and troll. "After many arguments, we finally decided it could not possibly be translated as Hobbitim or Trollim, so we agreed to add the Hebrew 'ha' and made them HaHobbit and HaTroll." Harpaz begins to smile broadly as he flips through the exercise books laid out on the kitchen table in front of him. "We had a lot of fun translating The Hobbit - and having fun in an Egyptian jail is really something," he says with a grin. WHEN HE fell into captivity, Harpaz was married and the father of two children. His wife was pregnant with twin girls when he parachuted out of his crippled aircraft and into the unknown. At one stage he knitted dresses for his unseen daughters, and another for his wife Nurit back on Hazorea. He obtained the needles and wool through the Red Cross. "I actually began on bamboo sticks but later got some needles," he chuckles, adding that Nurit's dress entailed no fewer than 90,000 stitches; he knows because he counted them. Turning serious, Harpaz speaks of how the prisoners had assessed their plight. During their years in captivity, they celebrated three communal Seder nights. "We celebrated each Pessah seder in the secular kibbutz way and also in the traditional religious way, so that everybody felt comfortable - as comfortable as possible when you are Jews in captivity celebrating the exodus of your forefathers from that very place. "We understood that we would not be released, other than if there was peace or another war. We didn't believe there would be peace, so we waited for war. We were probably the only Israelis who were happy about the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973," he says with a sad laugh. The prisoners were released on November 6, 1973, and flown to Lod (now Ben-Gurion) Airport. From there, Harpaz was taken by helicopter to the airbase of Ramat David in the Jezreel Valley, a short drive from his kibbutz. "My twin daughters were three years old and only knew their father from photographs," he says. The two little girls, wearing the dresses their father had knitted for them in Egypt, had been told that their father had come home. All the way to their kibbutz parent's house from their kindergarten, they had been singing in chorus, "Daddy's come." "They came into the house, looked at the photograph on the shelf and didn't give me a second glance. I picked up a children's book and started to read them a short story," he recalls. "After a few minutes they looked up at their mother and one of them said, 'Okay, let's go visit the cows' - and that was that!"