1948, for real

Sapir Prize-winner Yoram Kaniuk is as candid in an interview as he is in his down-to-earth, memoir about his experiences in War of Independence.

Jewish soldiers in Jerusalem 1948 521 (photo credit: Fred Csasznik)
Jewish soldiers in Jerusalem 1948 521
(photo credit: Fred Csasznik)
They say that if you hang on long enough, you eventually come into fashion. Not that he’s exactly been anonymous all these years, but at the age of 81, Yoram Kaniuk has – in his own words – never had it so good.
“I’m getting an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University, I received the Sapir Prize [in March, for 1948] – that’s enough to keep me for two years,” says the author.
1948 is Kaniuk’s latest book and has attracted rave reviews, and impressive sales, since its release last year. A play based on the book will open at the Haifa Theater on Thursday, and Kaniuk is delighted with the stage portrayal of his work. Naturally books go through changes when they are translated into a different entertainment format, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem with the show.
“I saw a run of the play a few days ago. It sounds fantastic,” says Kaniuk. “They haven’t changed a thing. It’s exactly the words I use in the book.”
As the title suggests, 1948 tells the story of the War of Independence, but this is no textbook or history book. It is a personal and human account of some of the battles that took place in and around Jerusalem. It also describes dayto- day events in the run-up to the Declaration of Independence, including references to the arrival of Holocaust survivors, and goings-on in the Kaniuk household on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Ben- Yehuda.
“You know the word ‘history’ comes from the Greek for ‘story,’” Kaniuk observes. “People have told me that my account of some of the battles I took part in isn’t accurate. I don’t know, but I don’t think it matters. If you take four people who were in the same battle, you’ll get four different versions.”
There is no romanticizing in 1948; you won’t find any tributes to great acts of heroism there, or any idealism. Kaniuk’s description of his role in the war, and the events he witnessed, is as down-to-earth as they come.
“What did we know?” he says. “I was a kid, 17, when I joined the Palmah in 1947. The battles started. We’d go off to fight at night – the War of Independence was mostly fought at night, we learned that from Orde Wingate – then we’d go back to [Kibbutz] Kiryat Anavim and bury the ones who’d been killed in the pits we’d dug before we went off to fight. We’d go to sleep, wake up about noon or 1 p.m., hang around, then have a briefing about where and how we were going to fight that night, and we’d go off to battle. That’s how it was every day.”
That doesn’t sound too glorious, but Kaniuk tells it and writes it as it is.
“A man came up to me recently and told me he’d bought the book and that he was a general in the IDF. He told me it was the first time he had read a book that was about the war, that came from within the war,” says Kaniuk.
“I think the viewpoint of a soldier who turned 18 during the war is the correct standpoint on the war,” he continues. “Five or six of us would go off to battle and two would return alive. When you’re 17, 18, you don’t know what it means to die – that’s why youngsters make good soldiers. The War of Independence is not documented, there were no films made of it, there was no TV, no CNN, there was nothing. At the end of the day, it’s all guesswork.”
Historical and political analyzing are not for Kaniuk; he has a no-nonsense understanding of events that took place 63 years ago.
“There are two approaches in Israel today – post-Zionism and another one. The post-Zionist approach believes that everything was bad and we had to drive the Arabs out, and that the war was about killing the Arabs. The others say that independence was a huge event.
But it wasn’t one or the other. We did’t go off to kill the Arabs or drive them out. It was a war of survival. They started the war, and we fought. We did a lot of bad things and we did a lot of wonderful things, we had victories and defeats. Out of 1,100 soldiers in the Harel Brigade, my brigade, 400 were killed – that’s over a third.”
IT IS well-documented that the fledgling state’s military forces weren’t exactly a polished fighting machine. Kaniuk describes Israel’s management of the campaign simply as “a balagan.”
“The officers didn’t know how to fight – maybe only hand-to-hand combat, but that was it. I was in a battle near Caesarea, there were bullets flying everywhere, but my commander didn’t tell me which I direction [to] shoot in. He didn’t know. We were the X-ray of the people, we learned how to fight from the bodies of the soldiers who fell. There were all those Holocaust survivors who were sent to battle a month or two after getting here. They learned a little bit about fighting, but they didn’t even know Hebrew at the time.”
Kaniuk attributes a surprising added value to the war.
“We started the war as Israelis and ended it as Jews,” he says. “We went hiking in the desert and sang Hebrew songs, and we felt like tzabarim [sabras]. But as a Jew, you learn how to cheat and lie and get up to all sorts of tricks, simply to survive. Jews have always had to find a way to survive through hardships, pogroms, the Holocaust. I became a survivor.
As soon as we went to war, we fought like Jews. The War of Independence was a Jewish war. I became a Jew.”
In 1948, Kaniuk refers to the Holocaust and the fact that no country was willing to take the Jews in. He says he was determined to help safeguard the State of Israel so that the Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust would have a home to come to. His “judaicizing” experience in the War of Independence was to stand him in good stead later.
“After the war, I worked on boats which went to bring Holocaust survivors from Europe to Israel. I felt an immediate affinity with them. They were survivors, and so was I.”
There is a delightful intimacy about 1948, and not just Kaniuk’s experiences as a young and largely bewildered soldier.
He paints a cozy, youthful picture of life in Tel Aviv, his love of living close to the sea, and of events at home, some of the latter a bit offbeat. The book is shot through with colorful vignettes, about his family, painful and darkly comic, as well as goings-on in the war and some of the characters who populated his world as the state began to materialize.
One such character is a long-lost cousin of his father’s who arrived, having survived the Holocaust, on the doorstep of the Kaniuk residence and caused not a little mayhem.
KANIUK PUBLISHED his first book over 50 years ago, although he started writing immediately after the War of Independence ended, at the tender age of 18.
“I never finished it. The text got lost at some stage,” says the octogenarian.
Soon after that, Kaniuk relocated to Paris, where he spent a year studying art. That was followed by a Stateside move, initially for treatment of leg wounds he’d received during the war, at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
The temporary move turned into a decade-long sojourn in the Big Apple, and Kaniuk quickly fell in love with the high-energy modern jazz music played by the likes of bebop founders Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, singer Billie Holiday and older jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington and saxophonist Lester Young, who embraced modern jazz.
“I have been told that I write in an unacceptable literary style. But I write the way I speak. I couldn’t write so I felt helpless, and my style of writing came out of this helplessness.”
The music Kaniuk heard in 1950s New York also impacted his literary work from the outset.
“Yes,” he acknowledges, “I think you could say my writing is like bebop, you know, like improvisation, like jazz.”
Indeed, there is an unregimented aspect to Kaniuk’s writing, reminiscent of the frenetic outpouring of bebop.
“No other style of jazz ever interested me,” says the writer. “For me, playing bebop is like doing a somersault inside a very organized cage. You do all these crazy things, but... it works if you put it into chains. Jazz is improvisation in chains. You have an idea of what they are going to do, but you never know how they are going to do it.”
Much like the format of 1948, Kaniuk was drawn to the dark underground life of jazz and befriended Parker – known as Bird – who is revered today as one of the giants of modern jazz. It was the raw power and down-and-dirty nature of bebop that beguiled the 20-something Kaniuk.
“I once went to see a show by [successful white pianist] Dave Brubeck,” he recalls. “Bird didn’t like what Brubeck was doing. He said he was turning jazz into a dignified lady when it was really a prostitute. There were all those college- kid-type white jazz players around back then, but I didn’t like what they did – it was all too clean and polished. That’s not what jazz is all about.”
Kaniuk left New York and returned to Israel in 1959 because, as he says, “I missed speaking and hearing Hebrew.”
Considering the number of Israelis living in the Big Apple these days, had he been born 40 or 50 years later, Kaniuk might have stayed put. He came back to Hebrew, but also to a jazz desert.
“There were just a few jazz musicians here back then, like [bass player] Eli Magen and that guy with the beard [Romanian-born saxophonist-flutist Roman Kuntzman] and [drummer] Areleh Kaminsky.”
Of course, Kaniuk did his best to disseminate his love of the music, and in the 1970s presented a regular Night Owl radio show on Army Radio with jazz accounting for many of the numbers he played.
“There was a really nice producer on the show called Neria. I liked her a lot,” he remembers. “In fact, I named a character in one of my books Neria.”
Now well past retirement age, Kaniuk has received a new lease on life and says, in fact, that he’s lucky to be around, even discounting his many escapes in the 1948 war. Another close brush with death in 2005 prompted him finally to put his wartime experiences down on paper.
“I had two kinds of cancer,” he recalls.
“After an operation in 2005, my stitches burst open, so they had to operate on me again. But the stitches burst open again – I was told that happens one time in a million – and I almost died when I got a violent virus during the operation. Everyone thought I was going to die. I couldn’t speak or walk.”
Sometime later, he went to see an Israeli movie called Yamim Kfuim (Frozen Days). “There was a wonderful young actress in the film called Anat Klauzner, and I found out that her father was my surgeon. I realized I could have died, and that it was time to write the book.”
1948 may have endured a gestation period of over 60 years, but the result is a captivating and enlightening read that, historically accurate or not, puts the reader where the action was, on the military battlefield and on the battlefield of life.
“The education minister said he wants to place 1948 on the school curriculum here,” says Kaniuk. “That would be very gratifying. I’d like schoolchildren to know something about real life back then.”