Who by fire, who by earthquake
In the wake of the recent reopening of the Agnon House in Jerusalem, after an extensive renovation, Agnon's biographer discusses the writer's long journey home
On July 27, 1929, on the margins of a long letter, S.Y. Agnon wrote to his patron, Salman Schocken, to tell him about his new home: "And now another private matter that relates to me: The family of my partner, may she live a long life, has taken 1,000 pounds from the inheritance [left by his wife Esther's father, Georg Marx] to build us a house. If only I find solace there."
Two years to the month after Agnon wrote the letter, he affixed a mezuzah to the doorpost of the Jerusalem home he was to live in for nearly 40 years, the building on 16 Klausner St. in Talpiot that the public has come to know as the Agnon House.
Agnon's move to a permanent home signaled a turning point in his life, which enjoyed a large degree of stability from that point on - a marked change from the many years he spent wandering from country to country, from house to house, undergoing several difficult experiences along the way. Agnon (1888-1970?) was in his 20s when he left his parents' house in the eastern Galician town of Buczacz, now in Ukraine, with the stated intention of immigrating to Israel. He arrived here in 1908, and during his first few years in the country he lived in several places in the Jaffa area, mainly in Neveh Tzedek, the first neighborhood in the new Jewish city of Tel Aviv.
Although there is some dispute about where exactly he resided, the house on the corner of Chelouche and Rokah streets has been identified as the one where Agnon lived during his time in that area, and visitors go there every day to see with their own eyes the house in which the young Agnon wrote stories like "Tishri" (later called "The Dune"), which, of all his stories from that period, may be the one that most evokes Jaffa. From time to time, Agnon made his way from Jaffa to Jerusalem, and at some point in early 1912, he uprooted himself and moved there for a few months, primarily to be near the writer Yosef Haim Brenner, his friend and patron at the time.
Agnon's first stay in Palestine ended in October of the same year, when he boarded a ship to Germany with sociologist and Zionist leader Dr. Arthur Ruppin, who convinced him to see the world and broaden his horizons. Agnon remained there for 12 years, staying with Ruppin's sister and elsewhere in Berlin until the outbreak of World War I, when he began splitting his time between there and Leipzig. There was a serious housing crisis in Germany at the time, and Agnon had to move around quite often - which not only made life hectic but also made it difficult for him to work. His autobiographical story "Ad Hena," ("To This Day"), written more than 30 years later, depicts this itinerant period. The story, which is loaded with symbolism, hinges on the narrator's wanderings from city to city and from apartment to apartment.
Agnon started off his post-war years in Munich, where he was sent by Salman Schocken; after marrying Esther Marx, in 1920, he moved to central Germany. He spent a year in Wiesbaden and then moved to Bad Homburg - on the Main River, near Frankfurt. There he made his home with Esther and their two young children, and wrote some of his best work.
"I never saw him as openhearted, radiating good will and emanating brilliance, as in those days," said Gershom Scholem. But Agnon's life in Bad Homburg came to a terrible end: On June 6, 1924, his house burned down, and his entire library, along with all his manuscripts, were consumed by the fire.
"They say about the Baal Shem Tov, may his name be blessed, that one time he was dancing on Simhat Torah with a Torah scroll in his arm," Agnon wrote to Schocken after the fire. "Suddenly he gave the Torah scroll to one of his students and said: Now we'll dance with the spiritual Torah! And he danced on his own. I have now reached the point where I do not have the physical Torah with me, that is, the books and writings, but what can I do, as I have not merited feeling the spiritual Torah within me. And the grief is all-consuming."
Agnon moved to Jerusalem by himself in the autumn of 1924, living first in the Zichron Moshe neighborhood and then renting a house on what is now Shamai Street, in the center of town. His family joined him there, and they stayed for almost three years. But they were forced to find a new home once again, when this house was badly damaged by an earthquake on July 11, 1927. The family escaped unscathed.
This time around, the Agnons ended up in Talpiot, which was then a nice garden neighborhood in southern Jerusalem. The house they rented on Yehezkel (later renamed Klausner) Street belonged to a family living on the other side of the road. The Agnon family enjoyed a pleasant, quiet time for a bit, until the Arab riots of 1929 broke out. The first night of the riots, Talpiot was attacked and its residents forced to evacuate. Having learned from his past experience, Agnon packed two large bags with his manuscripts before heading downtown with his neighbors.
Agnon sent a telegram to Schocken from a post office in the city center on August 25, 1929, letting him know that he and his manuscripts were safe. The next day Agnon returned to his house, despite the great danger, only to discover that the rioters had ransacked it, stealing expensive objects and scattering valuable archival material, including the manuscripts Agnon had been unable to take with him.
And so it was that the new house, completed in 1931, offered Agnon a different life and comfortable working conditions. He and his family lived on the ground floor, and upstairs, where his library was, he created a mini-temple where he would close himself up for hours, day after day, devoting himself to writing. This is the home where Agnon wrote the works that made him internationally renowned, like the novels "A Simple Story," "A Guest for the Night" and "Only Yesterday"; this is where he also wrote stories like those in "The Book of Deeds" and the novella "Betrothed." And this was where Agnon worked on his series of compilation and memory that constitute such an important element of his literary enterprise - books like "Days of Awe," "Present at Sinai: The Giving of the Law" and "A City and the Fullness Thereof." Writers and scholars from all over Israel and around the world came in pilgrimage to this house, and this was where, in October 1966, Agnon was officially informed that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature.
But the 40 years Agnon spent in the house were not completely peaceful. During the 1948 War of Independence, there were major battles in the area of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, south of Talpiot, and life in the neighborhood was dangerous. His books and manuscripts were moved to the Schocken Library in Rehavia for safekeeping, and he himself moved to the same neighborhood, where he sublet an apartment.
Agnon didn't return to his Talpiot residence with war's end, since it was seriously damaged by wartime shelling - forcing him and and his wife to once again find a temporary home. This time, they lived for a year in Gershom Scholem's house on 28 Abarbanel St.; the scholar and his wife were on sabbatical in New York at the time.Agnon was quite content in Scholem?s home, writing to his friend: "In all my days, I have never seen such a nice library." It was in this nice library that Agnon worked on "Book, Writer and Story," a volume about writers who appear in the Jewish sources, and is also thought to be where he wrote his mystery-enshrouded story "Ido ve'Inam" - in no small thanks to the positive influence of Scholem?s home.
Early in the morning of July 9, 1969, Agnon's daughter, Emuna Yaron, called the Talpiot home to speak to her father. The writer had been living alone since his wife became ill; she was at the Hartzfeld Geriatric Hospital in Gedera. The phone rang, but no one picked up. Gad Yaron, Emuna's son, rode his motor scooter to Talpiot to see what was going on. After knocking on the door and getting no answer, he went around to the back window, where he saw his grandfather lying on the floor.
Firefighters were called from the neighbor's house, and they broke through the back door. Then came the ambulance. Paramedics placed Agnon - he was still alive, but had sustained a brain hemorrhage during the night - on a stretcher and brought him to Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, where he stayed for weeks. Then he too was sent to Hartzfeld, which was to be his last home before his death on February 17, 1970.
Agnon never again set foot in the house on Klausner Street. After his death it was opened to the public and became a place where people would gather to study his work. But more than anything else, Agnon House - more than any of the many other places in which the writer lived, some of which are publicly recognized as such − became a symbolic space identified with Agnon and his creations. Being in the Klausner Street house offers up the possibility of bridging the distances of time and space and feeling close to the man who - even 40 years after his death − was and remains an inseparable part of everything we are, and everything we could have wanted to be.
Agnon House, 16 Klausner Street, Talpiot, Jerusalem; admission: NIS 20 (students and seniors, NIS 15); open Sunday to Thursday, 9 A.M.-3 P.M.; 02-671-6498.
Prof. Dan Laor is the incumbent of the Jacob and Shoshana Schreiber Chair for Contemporary Jewish Culture at Tel Aviv University. The English translation of his Agnon biography (1998, Schocken) is forthcoming from Holmes & Meier, New York.
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