The Jewish Sabra

An interview with novelist Yoram Kaniuk, who recently won the Sapir Prize for his novel, 'Tashach,' a memoir-novel of what happened in the 1948 War of Independence.

Yoram Kaniuk_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoram Kaniuk_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NO ONE BELIEVED THAT the 81-year-old author Yoram Kaniuk would win the Sapir Prize, the annual Mifal Hapayis (National Lottery) award for literary achievement, for his recent novel “Tashach” (“1948”).
Surely, it would go to one of the younger, more au courant novelists included on the shortlist for the prize. These were Sayed Kashua, his wonderful humor in “Guf Sheni Yahid” (Second Person Singular) revealing what it feels like to be an Israeli Arab and a jealous male; Nir Baram’s “Anashim Tovim,” (Good People) weaving two parallel stories of “good people” in Germany and the Soviet Union coopted by their totalitarian governments to evil purposes; “Habaita” (Home) by Assaf Inbari whimsically depicting the foibles of a group of “halutzim” (kibbutz-based pioneers from the beginning of the 20th century fired by seemingly abstruse ideological considerations; Leah Aini’s “Vered Halevanon” (The Rose of Lebanon), in which a young woman soldier tells about her nightmarish childhood in a poor immigrant neighborhood, dominated by a crazed survivor father from Salonika who sexually and emotionally harasses her.
Prof. Zeev Zachor, the chairman of the Sapir Prize jury, claimed that the central themes of Hebrew literature have changed: there is less emphasis on kibbutz and the army, and more on Tel Aviv and alienation.
But, belying his words, the shortlist for the Sapir Prize reflected motifs common to the past, a grappling with Zionist and Shoah history, as well as the issue of identity (for Sayed Kashua, it was Israeli Arab identity).
Even Kaniuk was surprised by his victory. “I only came with my wife and my good friend, my cardiologist, to the prize ceremony – not even my daughter [was there],” declared the balding Kaniuk, who still retains the chiseled good looks and strong manner that echoes in some of the primal figures he depicts in “Tashach.” Many Israelis didn’t believe that he’d win – that is, until they read the book, a memoir-novel of what happened in the 1948 War of Independence.
The intense rhythm of the work, the chain of battle after battle, death after death, the randomness and chance as to who will survive, makes it an overwhelming experience.
It is the story of the 17-year-old Kaniuk, determined to help bring in the Holocaust refugees floating the seas in small boats looking for a homeland. He left high school in 12th grade before graduating, shortly before the UN Partition Plan was announced in November 1947, to join the Palmach, a rag-tag group of people, illequipped and almost untrained. However, he wasn’t sent out to bring Jews in from the sea, but to fight the Arabs that had already attacked Jewish settlements. Kaniuk had one practice lesson at shooting a gun before going out to battle.
IN AN INTERVIEW MOSTLY CONducted in Hebrew in his modest Tel Aviv apartment crowded with books and paintings, Kaniuk was welcoming, charming.
Although somewhat subdued after a life-threatening illness he experienced a few years ago, he was articulate and thoughtful as he reminisced about 1948.
“I wanted to shatter two myths,” he said.
“One was the myth of the Palmach as superheroes. Our officers were people that had never been in battle. It was a series of ‘almosts.’ Everything was accidental. There was often no food, no water. They were not greater than life. They were very human. On the other hand, I wanted to shatter the Arab myth of the nakba, that we intentionally wanted to destroy the existing population, that we were a colonial power. They began the war. We were reacting to their attacks. Jerusalem was in siege. People were without food or water. Jews in Kfar Etzion were slaughtered. Every night before we went out, we dug graves for the eight or nine of us who would not return after the battle.”
Many authors go through especially formative periods that shape the future writer.
For Amos Oz, it was his childhood immediately before the establishment of the state: his mother committed suicide when he was 12.
No doubt, for Kaniuk, the War of Independence and the Shoah refugees for whom the 17-year-old saw himself fighting were the factors that most shaped his life.
Many of his books touch on these subjects.
But although always respected (he was awarded the Bialik Prize, the President’s Prize, and the Prix Mediterranee Etranger, among other honors), his works, by his own confession, were offbeat. They never occupied the literary center stage.
Some are grotesque or surrealistic, such as the 1968 novel “Himmo, King of Jerusalem,” about a soldier who has been blinded and had his legs blown off.
Hamutal, a nurse who has lost her fiancé in the war, cares for and loves Himmo in the monastery that has been transformed into a hospital. But eventually, she gives him the injection that will end his suffering.
Kaniuk never became representative of his generation, the Palmach generation, like Moshe Shamir and S. Yizhar who wrote about the War of Independence. Nor did he receive the acclaim of the following generation, like A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, in spite of the fact that he too explored the themes of the non-heroic and noncanonical, the individual rather than the collective, which was characteristic of this later generation.
In many ways, he fits more into today’s post-modern world of Israeli literature, playing with the epistemological questions of memory, what was true and not true, what actually happened in the War of Independence, the relativism of it all. “And what’s so important about truth?” he writes in “Tashach.” “A lie that comes from the search after truth can be more true than the truth.”
In the same post-modern mode, Kaniuk is anti-ideological, indicating that it was not ideology that generated action. “We didn’t really know what it meant to build a state, as we had never done it. The state was an abstract concept. But we had to do it. If we didn’t do it then, it wouldn’t have been done,” says Kaniuk. He writes, “I knew that in the small boats circling the sea were thousands of homeless survivors that no land wanted, and we had to have a homeland for them.” But “Tashach” demonstrates how haphazard it all was, especially in the beginning. “We were like the Children’s Crusade of 1948,” he says.
Kaniuk tried to write a novel about the War of Independence not long after it was over but his story was not accepted for publication.
He went to study art in England and then traveled to the US for medical treatment for the leg wounds he sustained during the war. He eventually gave up on painting and turned to fiction. He stayed in America for 10 years where he met genteel, loyal Amanda, his non-Jewish wife. “We were all shell-shocked,” he says. “We wanted to get away after the war. But I knew that ultimately I would come back to live in Israel.”
Kaniuk has been fortunate to live long enough to write the book about the War of Independence that he tried to write then. And it has brought him recognition. Apart from the Sapir Prize, he received an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University in mid-May. “I am more fortunate than many writers,” he says. “I lived long enough to be appreciated these last five or six years. It doesn’t happen to many writers. I wrote then very much like I write today, but then writers were more realistic, and I didn’t write like them,” says Kaniuk. “It’s like [the painter] El Greco who didn’t how know to create like others. He did what he didn’t know how to do, and was able to create something new from failure.”
KANIUK WAS DRIVEN BY THE need to express the trauma of 1948, and he explains how “Tashach” was finally written. “In 2005,” he says, “I had cancer and although the operation went well, a terrible infection set in and went to the lungs. It was only because of the ingenuity of my doctor pumping gas into my lungs to kill the bacteria that I was saved. I was in a coma for two to three weeks. People were already writing my obituaries,” he adds wryly.
But when Kaniuk came out of the coma, he relived again the trauma of the War of Independence, when he was severely shot in the leg. “I was determined to write about it once more,” he explains. “It was a very personal urge. Many history books have been written about the War of Independence. But very few wrote from the soldier’s point of view. I didn’t do any research. I wrote from the belly of the war, the confusion, the death. Many people who fought then have contacted me since the book came out thanking me. They felt that their story had finally been told, their trauma revealed.
“There were 600,000 Jews in Israel at the time, and 6,000 were killed. We were all volunteers. To this day, I don’t know how we continued, why we didn’t run away. I waited for death all the time, but it skipped over me,” he says.
Kaniuk describes battle after battle and the personalities of the people he fought with. There was Benny Marshak who hammered away at them that they were creating history, establishing a state. And although Kaniuk remained skeptical that this nomadic people could create something that had not been part of its experience, he speaks of Marshak affectionately. Then there was Yashka, the partisan who fought at Stalingrad. “He felt Jews deserved a state because they weren’t given credit for their courage at Stalingrad,”writes Kaniuk. “And when Yashka died they put a grave-marker, ‘Yashka the partisan,’ even though we didn’t know who he really was. We felt he was a Jew, even if he wasn’t Jewish.”
Kaniuk’s first experience of battle was at Kibbutz Hulda where five out of seven of his comrades were killed. The Palmach then went on to fight for the villages surrounding the Castel on the approach to Jerusalem. Benny Marshak impressed upon them that the war would be determined by the six meters of road, “the outlook that dominates the road to Jerusalem. That can change the war.”
Kaniuk relates in “Tashach” that he was in a small group sent to the summit of the Castel hill to hold it, when suddenly hordes of Arabs attacked. The older Palmach fighters ordered the novices to retreat while they covered them and many of the great figures of the Palmach were killed at that point protecting the young men. The description of Arabs stabbing the half-dead men and abusing the bodies is horrific.
But suddenly one of the Arab fighters whom the Palmach group nicknamed Valentino, because of his colorful garb and keffiya twisted with a gold tie, was shot by one of the retreating Jews. This was the local Arab leader Abd al-Kader al-Husseini, the cousin of the Mufti of Jerusalem. To the surprise of the Palmach fighters, the Arabs stopped still in their tracks, and began to wail. They stood above the abused Jewish bodies and instead of holding onto the Castel, they simply stopped fighting.
Kaniuk writes, “Because of deep pain about this man’s death, they returned to Jerusalem to accompany the great warrior to his last resting place, instead of taking possession of the mountain that was already in their hands. Perhaps that moment changed the war. We realized that you don’t leave a conquered village of strategic significance and we scrambled quickly up the hill, and left the unit there to hold the Castel.”
Another dramatic instance was the attempt to conquer Mt. Zion in the battle for the Old City. Kaniuk was shot in the leg. He saw his attacker, an English officer fighting in the Jordanian Army, and waited for him to finish the job and kill him. “I was about to begin life. Perhaps, even to kiss a girl, but I knew that I had a minute or two to live… I pleaded that I shouldn’t have to wait, that it should be finished already. I saw the blood dripping from my leg, and the beautiful wall of the Old City shining in the bright light of the sun and the eye of the man aiming at me, and perhaps I wanted to call but I couldn’t find my voice.” Kaniuk closed his eyes ready to die, but when he opened them, the officer had disappeared.
Kaniuk claims that the man contacted him later and told him that in his white uniform, his hands stretched out, the blood dripping from his foot, he looked like Christ and he couldn’t kill him. But here too he speculates whether it happened or he dreamed it. Kaniuk was brought to the makeshift hospital in the Italian Monastery, where others had had limbs amputated as gangrene set in. He begged to see a distant relative who was a doctor in Jerusalem to avoid losing his leg: his limb was spared thanks to the timely arrival of penicillin via a helicopter that got through to the besieged city.
In spite of his strong opposition to the rabbinate and the lack of separation between religion and state in Israel (in May he petitioned Tel Aviv District Court to order the Interior Ministry to register his official status as “Without Religion”), the Tel Aviv-born Kaniuk says he always felt more Jewish than Sabra.
“I was very influenced by my grandfather, a Diaspora Jew from Tarnopol,” he says, suggesting also that he was somewhat critical of his father who studied in Berlin and, having imbibed German culture, saw himself as a man of the world rather than an Eastern European galut Jew. He left Berlin for Palestine, and there became head of the Tel Aviv Museum.
In one scene in “Tashach,” Kaniuk has a primal figure, a man who came through the camps, appearing at their home and admonishing his father for denying the fact that these eastern European Jews were his brethren.
Kaniuk was, and still is, responsive to his Jewish roots. It was at the basis of his Zionism. “Ultimately,” declared Kaniuk, “the Palmach fighters were not Israelis. They were Jews. They knew how to survive. Jews know how to survive. They must be innovative to do so. We see this in our high-tech. We can’t allow ourselves to get into a rut. But we also can’t be arrogant. We can’t rule over another people. This is how it happened to us. We went to bring Jews from the sea, and ended up establishing a state in the Jerusalem hills.”