Birthday wishes for the first lady of Czech-Israeli literary relations!

by Tomáš Pojar

1. 10. 2015

During their far-from-easy lives four Czech Jewish writers moved to Israel and as a result left their indelible mark on Czech-Israeli literary relations. True, Prague-born poet, journalist and translator Jiří Mordechaj Langer left a trace that was more symbolic than anything, as he died just a short time after he returned to the land of his forebears. Another Prague native was active far longer in Tel Aviv – the German-speaking author, translator and composer Max Brod, who had come to be a highly visible figure in the local “Czech” community, and of course not just because he had looked after his old friend Franz Kafka’s legacy.

I had the honour to meet up several times in Jerusalem, Prague and my native Hradec Králové with Avigdor Dagan, better known in the Czech Republic by his given name Viktor Fischl. His stories set in Israel evoke the picturesque atmosphere of the Jerusalem suburbs where for many years he lived together with his dear wife Stella among their collections of porcelain, wooden and painted roosters. In Israel he is also well-known as a diplomat and an Israeli ambassador several times over, while in the Czech Republic he has gained fame as the author of Hovory s Janem Masarykem (Conversations with Jan Masaryk). He died relatively recently in 2006 at the venerable age of ninety-five.

However, none of the above have done so much for Czech-Israeli literary relations and Czech literature in Israel in particular as Ruth Bondy. Apart from writing her own books and working as a journalist on the once important Israeli newspaper Davar, she has translated over forty books by Czech authors into Hebrew. It is thanks to her that works have come out in Hebrew by Karel Čapek, Bohumil Hrabal, Jaroslav Hašek, Milan Kundera, Jiří Weiss, Jan Werich, Ladislav Fuks and Patrik Ouředník. Ruth Bondy was quite rightly the first woman to win the prestigious Israeli Nahum Sokolov journalism award in 1966. In Prague she also won a literary award several decades later, when she was awarded the Jiří Theiner prize for her lifelong work in 2012 by a unanimous decision of the panel.

I had the honour to get to know Ruth Bondy in the early 1990s after my father was made the first Czech ambassador to Israel. Ever since then I have met her on numerous occasions in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Prague. Of course, I got to know her best when I myself was recently the ambassador to Israel. Nowadays Ruth Bondy feels most at home in Israel, but she has never said goodbye to her native Prague.

I have always found her modesty astonishing, as well as her unflagging interest in goings-on in the Czech Republic, particularly of course her interest in Czech literature and the Czech language. She has a brilliant mastery of Hebrew, but she has never forgotten her native Czech, even though she was unable to get back to her native city for forty long years. She retained her Czech as if she had never left Prague. To this day I envy her Czech, whereas I am often ashamed of my own.

Two years ago I wanted to give Mrs Bondy not only flowers for her ninetieth birthday, but also a book bought at a Prague bookshop. At the time I visited several bookstores one after the other, but how could I choose a decent Czech book that she ideally did not know at all or at least that she didn’t have in her bookcase? So I put my money on a freshly published monograph by poet, translator and graphic artist Bohuslav Reynek. I was in luck. Not only did Ruth Bondy not have it, but she did not know of Bohuslav Reynek at all, so at least to a minor extent I had added to her knowledge of Czech literature. Other times she was the one who added to mine.

Unfortunately, Ruth Bondy is also associated with a sad memory of mine. My friend the documentarist and director Milan Maryška held the last interview of his life with her. After we finished filming at her Ramat Gan apartment outside Tel Aviv and before our planned filming session at the Kfar Masaryk Kibbutz, we went off to bathe in the Mediterranean.  I never managed to pull him out alive. Whenever I drive past Roman Caesaria, both of them inevitably come to mind.

Fortunately, several outstanding Hebrew-Czech translators live in the Czech Republic nowadays, so a truly respectable number of works by Israeli writers past and present are coming onto the Czech book market. Hence the Czech reading public has a very good chance of following contemporary Israeli literature. Unfortunately, however, for many decades we have only had one translator from Czech into Hebrew, which is all the more reason to be grateful. If it weren’t for Ruth Bondy, there would be practically no Czech literature in Israel. Fortunately, Čapekologist and literary critic Pierre Friedmann, who is two generations younger, recently began to translate Czech authors. If only Ruth Bondy could be followed by other young Israelis! And let us wish Pierre every success!

Czech literature has always been able to firmly rely on Ruth Bondy’s support and can to do so to this day, for which we should be deeply grateful. She has now lived to the ripe age of ninety-two, so let us wish her all the best for the traditional Jewish one hundred and twentieth! As well as lots more of her own books. And of course lots of new translations of Czech authors into Hebrew.

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Tomáš Pojar worked as the executive director of Člověk v tísni (People In Need). From 2010—2014 he was the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Israel. Since 2014 he has been the vice-rector for international relations at the CEVRO Institute in Prague.