Israeli Fighter Pilot Who Translated 'The Hobbit' From an Egyptian Prison Dies at 80

Col. Rami Harpaz had become leader of the air force prisoners after being taken captive. To pass the time they translated J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy novel into Hebrew

Col. Rami Harpaz
Courtesy of the Harpaz family

Col. Rami Harpaz, an Israel Air Force fighter pilot, who during three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Egypt translated "The Hobbit" into Hebrew, died Thursday at age 80.

Harpaz's translation came to be considered among the most beloved versions of the book, a project he undertook in order to pass the time while sitting in his cell.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

Harpaz was born in Herzliya in 1939 and grew up on Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek and Kibbutz Hazorea. He joined the army in 1956 and graduated from the 25th Israel Air Force pilots’ course. During the Six-Day War he participated in numerous sorties, after which he joined the career army.

During the War of Attrition he took part in the raid on Green Island in the Gulf of Suez and many other operations. On June 30, 1970, during an assault against Egyptian and Soviet missile batteries his plane was hit and he bailed out, together with his navigator, Eyal Ahikar, and was taken prisoner by the Egyptians.

Harpaz with Golda Meir after being released from an Egyptian prison.
Courtesy of the Harpaz family

“We sortied to bombard a battery west of the Suez Canal and another battery fired missiles at us. We managed to evade the first missile but the second one struck,” Harpaz told the Israel Air Force magazine. “We bailed out over the desert, but when we got close to the ground suddenly we saw the whole desert was running toward us. It was an army camp and Egyptian soldiers were running at us from every direction. There was nowhere to flee,” he said.

He was eventually put together with nine other Israeli prisoners in Abbasiya Prison in Cairo. “It was clear to us that only a war will bring us home and we had no idea when that would happen,” Harpaz said. “When someone asked when the hell we were going home, they would answer him ‘two months.’ Two months a great time span. Not short enough to sit on suitcases, and not long enough to despair,” he added.

The two months became 40, and Harpaz became the leader of the air force prisoners. They passed the time reading hundreds of books. Together with his comrades, Avinoam Kaldes, Menahem Eini and Yitzhak Fir. They translated one of them into Hebrew – "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkein, from a copy they had been given by the Red Cross. “When we read 'The Hobbit,' it was so beautiful that we decided we had to translate for readers who don’t know English.” As they worked, the project raised their morale, he told the magazine.

The translation by the POWs became very popular in Israel. “Precisely because we weren’t professional translators, the translation has its own charm. It allowed itself to go wild,” Harpaz said.

Harpaz was released in November 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, and returned to the air force. “Imprisonment wasn’t a difficult trauma for me. It was a constructive trauma,” he said in another interview with the air force magazine. “In my opinion each us came out of captivity better than we went in. Older, richer. More threads connected us to the outside world, more options were created for the future. These three and a half years did not get lost.”

Harpaz said the Egyptians were “nice people, who did their job. There were even manifestations of human kindness. And so I was not angry with them.”

Col. Rami Harpaz
Courtesy of the Harpaz family

Harpaz was eventually made commander of the Ramat David Air Force Base. He retired in 2016, remaining in the reserves. In civilian life he became director of a plastics factory at Kibbutz Hazorea. He is survived by his wife Nurit, children and grandchildren. One of his children, Erez, died on a trip to Bolivia in 2001.