Beloved Award-winning Israeli Author Amir Gutfreund Dies at 52

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WRiter Amir Gutfreund sits next to his cat, atop a large rock, against the backdrop of the Galilee hills, at the village of Tzurit.
Writer Amir Gutfreund in the Galilee village of Tzurit. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

About a year and a half ago, close to his 51st birthday, Amir Gutfreund — one of the most popular and best-loved Israeli writers in recent years — discovered he had cancer. This came three years after his first wife Neta died of the same disease, and two years after he had started writing “The Legend of Bruno and Adella,” the last of his books published so far. The book is a romantic story that deals with death, loss, and the inexplicable feeling of guilt that seizes those left alive.

This is a heart-rending discovery in light of Gutfreund’s death from cancer last weekend, at the age of only 52. It turns out that in the end, Gutfreund, who remarried and raised five children (three of his and two of hers) together with his second wife Michal, was in the final stages of his work on a new novel “Har Ha’osher” ("Mountain of Happiness"), which was scheduled to be published in January.

“As for my work, I’m really amazed,” he said in an interview with the Maariv newspaper a year ago. “Will I disappear or continue to exist after my death? These questions have become important for my life too.”

Publishing house Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir said that it has been preparing for the possibility that Gutfreund’s newest book might be published without him. The book’s editor Hila Blum and Gutfreund had been working on the final preparations: proofreading, the cover and final corrections.

Gutfreund was born in Haifa in 1963, earned a master’s degree from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in applied mathematics and operations research, and served in the Israel Air Force doing mathematical research for 20 years, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. His first book, "Our Holocaust," which was published while he was still in the military in 2001, brought him instant renown as an author.

The cover of Gutfreund's first book "Our Holocaust" (Shoah Shelanu). Credit: courtesty

"Our Holocaust" tells in a wonderfully humorous way the story of two children of Holocaust survivors, Amir and Effie, growing up. The parents slowly reveal their horrors, in a neighborhood where everyone is a Holocaust survivor. The book won the Buchman Prize from the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum, and later Gutfreund said the book was based on his childhood experiences. Two years later he won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, for a collection of stories “Ahuzot Ha-hof” ("The Shoreline Mansions"). In explaining their choice of Gutfreund, the judges said that he “brings a special and surprising voice to Hebrew literature. He built this voice using a mature and precise style. Simple and high language together too, and on every page of the book there is measured and effective irony present.”

“I read a lot of books in the framework of my position on the prize committee, and when you see a good book it doesn’t take much time and very quickly you notice the pace, fabric and precision, a one-time and personal fingerprint,” said Yitzhak Livni, who headed the committee at the time, last weekend.

“All these were in his book, and the more I continued to read I understood that not just the cutting and tailoring but the fabric itself, the personal literary essence - everything was remarkable. Such a book leaves a feeling of gravitas, weightiness, but still elegant and refined. That is what happened to me,” said Livni.

Israeli Author Amir Gutfreund speaks at the 2003 Sapir Prize award ceremony.Credit: Ariel Schalit

Sensitivity to those without rights

Upon being awarded the prize Gutfreund announced that he was donating part of the 150,000 shekel prize money to the Workers Hotline nonprofit organization, which helps foreign workers and others, something “directly related to my being second generation to Holocaust [survivors]. I have sensitivity to people without rights, defenseless and hopeless,” said Gutfreund at the time.

Two years later, in 20005, his third book "The World, A Moment Later," was published. At age 42 he retired from the air force and published three more books: "Heroes Fly to Her" in 2008; "A Mercenary and Winter Bud" in 2013; and "The Legend of Bruno and Adella" in 2014. In 2013, Gutfreund won the Prime Minister’s Prize.

Gutfreund, whose works were translated in a number of languages, including French, English, German and Hungarian, frequently wove experiences from his childhood in Haifa and Kiryat Haim into his books. In 2011, when he was writing his fifth book, "A Mercenary and Winter Bud," his first wife Neta died of cancer. He dedicated the book to her: “To Neta Shamir, of blessed memory, my wife, my love. The first book without you.”

Alit Karp wrote in Haaretz (in Hebrew) about this book: “This is not an optimistic book, but it is a beautiful and personal book, that bravely leads its hero on the obstacle-strewn road of the things that must be gone through. He does not offer even a single shortcut nor a single pill against pain... If in the past Gutfreund went for grand things and wanted to tell the national myth through the personal, now in this book he is stripping off these those fancy garments and converging on personal pain,” wrote Karp.

Screenwriter for 'Hostages' show

In recent years Gutfreund lived in the small community of Yuvalim in the Galilee with his second wife Michal and their children. Once in a while he would publish stories in the weekend edition of the Maariv newspaper; he wrote a screenplay about a family that moves to the Galilee; and was the screenwriter for the television series “Hostages” broadcast on Channel 10. What did not change in his life, say those who knew him and worked with him, was the generous spirit that so characterized him.

“Amir could have read any book we published, or I edited, and then you could have received a letter from him filled with warm compliments and comments,” said Noa Manheim, the head of the original literature department at Kinneret-Zmora. He was caring and supportive and encouraging, she said, adding that she received many calls after he died from writers who had been helped by him, " she said. “He was a very funny person, with a dry sense of humor. There are people who see his writing as heavy and they are missing an important aspect, his entertaining aspect. It was that way too near the end,” said Manheim.

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