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Saying Goodbye to Amos Oz, A Writer of Pre-Holocaust Ukraine

At the close of 2018, we lost one of the titans of modern Jewish literature. Amos Oz passed away at the age of 79 after a short fight with cancer. As his daughter Fania announced on Facebook: "My beloved father passed away from after a rapid decline. He was passed away peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by loved ones."

Amos was born as Amos Klausner in Jerusalem, in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. His life path made him into something of an archetypal Sabra, or native-born Israeli. His father’s family was deeply involved in right-wing Zionism. His great uncle, Joseph Klausner, was an associate of Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky in Odesa and an accomplished literary scholar. As Amos grew up, he began to reject both the more studious and right-wing parts of his background and left the urban life of Jerusalem for the leftist agricultural idealism of the kibbutz. With this life change, he changed his name to Oz. Like many of his generation, he preferred a name that was more Hebrew and utilitarian.

In his own way, Amos Oz was also an author of the Ukrainian-Jewish diaspora as well. He never visited his mother’s hometown of Rivne in Western Ukraine. But, that did not stop him from writing extensively about it. His magnum opus, the autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness, was also something of a biography of his mother, Fania Mussman. This was the angle taken by the movie adaptation directed by Natalie Portman.

To Amos, Rivne was frozen in time from his mother’s stories. More dream than reality. It was not even Rivne, but Rovno, its name from Yiddish. This is something that is common in the family histories of many Jews who left Eastern Europe. In the lingering memories of the grandchildren of those who left, Vilnius is still Vilna and Chișinău is still Keshenev. This is not entirely fair. These places are home to living Jewish communities and the main synagogue of Rivne has even recently been restored, but the Rivne of 2019 cannot be the Rovno of 1919. Decades have passed and these places are not the same as they were. Amos knew that if he were to return, he would not find the same Rovno which was destroyed by the Holocaust.

Reading A Tale of Love and Darkness passes on that memory to the reader. He paints a picture of a city filled with merchants and Hasidim, Zionists and Socialists. This is how he described the city:

[Rivne] boasted some sixty thousand inhabitants before the Second World War, of whom Jews constituted the majority, and the rest were Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and a handful of Czechs and Germans. Several thousand more Jews lived in the nearby towns and villages. The villages were surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens, pastures and fields of wheat and rye that sometimes shuddered or rippled in the breeze. The silence of the fields was broken from time to time by the howl of a locomotive. Occasionally you could hear Ukrainian peasant girls singing in the gardens. - A Tale of Love and Darkness

The Rovno of Oz’s memory was multicultural, multilingual, and idyllic. Houses were filled books and children played between the fruit trees. Most importantly, Rovno was Rovno. WWI and the period of warfare that followed led to the city passing between Russian, German, Polish, Ukrainian control before ending up as part of the Second Polish Republic. Rulers came and went, but the community remained. The time of “peace” then became a time of increased anti-semitic violence in the East and cold indifference in the West.

So there they were, these over-enthusiastic Europhiles, who could speak so many of Europe's languages and recite its poetry, who believed in its moral superiority, appreciated its ballet and opera, cultivated its heritage, dreamed of its postnational unity, and adored its manners, clothes, and fashions, who had loved it unconditionally and uninhibitedly for decades, since the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment, and who had done everything humanly possible to please it, to contribute to it in every way and in every domain, to become part of it, to break through its cool hostility with frantic courtship, to make friends, to ingratiate themselves, to be accepted, to belong, to be loved...

- A Tale of Love and Darkness

Of course, this story came to an end. The city was captured by Nazi soldiers on June 28th, 1941 and made the capital of the occupation government of Reichskommissariat Ukraine. Most of the Fania’s family who did not immigrate to the Mandate of Palestine were killed.

Fania Klausner née Mussman committed suicide when Amos was only 12 years old. She never made peace with the destruction of her old world, while the new one never rose to match her idealism. Her stories about Rovno kept not only the community alive in the mind of her son and his readers, but they also kept her alive in the mind of Amos.

With this legacy both driving him forward and weighing him down, Amos Oz became a distinct and commanding voice in Israeli culture. His works grappled with the contradictions of Israel and the Zionist project. He confronted the disappointments of different sorts of idealism, the decline of the founding mythology of the austere kibbutz in favor of modern globalism, and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. His life and writing represented a yearning for the strength of Zionism as opposed to the victimhood of diaspora while also recognizing the problems that grow from strength. While he was well to the left of the Israeli political spectrum, he always called on his readers to reach out to and understand those whom they disagreed with, whether they were Jewish or Arab.

With the death of Amos Oz, we lost both a towering writer and a voice of moderation. There is no better way of saying it than what Amos’s friend and fellow writer David Grossman stated in an interview with The Guardian: “the world is diminished a little, it’s narrowed down a little.”

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