At Polish Book Festival, a Tale of Love and Israel

At Sopot, aficionados describe why they eat up translations from the Hebrew, especially writers like Etgar Keret, who don’t push the Holocaust, the Palestinian conflict or kibbutzim.

Etgar Keret at the Sopot by the Book Festival, Sopot, Poland, August 20, 2016.
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Polish writer Pawel Huelle’s 2004 novel “Castorp,” an homage to Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain,” begins with an interesting prophesy made early last century. The book’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, comes to Danzig (now Gdansk) to study and sees an article in the local paper about climate change.

As the prophesy went, a hundred years from then, in around 2005, the Baltic’s weather would resemble that of the Middle East, making spa towns boom towns.

This prediction came to mind as a rainstorm lashed Sopot’s long boardwalk last weekend. The rain was occasionally interrupted by a bit of sun, as if to confuse the thousands of tourists in this northern Polish resort town, Gdansk’s small, quiet neighbor.

Middle Eastern weather may not have enveloped Sopot, but something of the region’s cultural temperament made itself felt in the city for four days. The main focus of this year’s Sopot by the Book Festival was Israeli literature, and a number of Israeli writers were featured guests.

In addition to giving Poles a chance to get better acquainted with Israeli culture, society and politics, the encounters with the Israeli writers provided an opportunity for comparisons with events in Poland over the past year.

The right-wing Polish government says a bill banning allegations that Poles collaborated with the Nazis is designed to defend Poland’s good name. The bill is the government’s latest effort that has stirred criticism that it is trying to rewrite history.

One star at the festival, writer Etgar Keret, noted how Israel and Poland were both “trying to limit freedom of expression and create a pristine, mistake-free national narrative – a move that can only derive from fear, confusion and insecurity on the part of the leadership.”

Keret called on both countries to allow self-criticism, which he said would only strengthen them. He called on the people of both countries not to be cowed by intimidation or to be afraid to confront history. “A process of reflection and recognition of past mistakes is the highest place to which a person or society can aspire,” he said.

Keret’s 49th birthday happened to fall on the day of his appearance at the festival, and hundreds of people in the audience stood up and sang “Happy Birthday” to him in Polish. Keret said he’d always made it a point to be home on his birthday, but this year he changed things around “because Poland is home too.”

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He told the audience about his trip to Warsaw last year with his mother, who was returning for the first time since she left Poland as a child after her parents and brother died in the Holocaust.

“My returning here as a writer and the narrow house that was built in my honor in Warsaw marks a closing of a family circle,” Keret said. “The country that my mother left in such an extremely traumatic way is now welcoming us with an embrace.”

Bigger than Amos Oz

Keret’s popularity in Poland was clear. At the end of the event, dozens of readers crowded around to ask for his autograph, and the writer and comics artist Rutu Modan, also a guest of the festival, was asked about her collaboration with Keret. (She too stressed the cultural affinity between Israelis and Poles.) And at a bar in Sopot, a group of young Poles cheerfully raised toast after toast to the writer.

“There’s something surprising about Keret’s success in Poland compared to many other Israeli writers who’ve been translated and attracted interest here,” Polish writer Beata Chomatowska told Haaretz. “Unlike many of them, his surreal and humoristic stories aren’t connected to the Holocaust or Jewish history and identity. But maybe this is the key to his success – he represents a fresher view.”

With echoes of John Lennon’s famous remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus, Chomatowska concluded: “Keret is the most popular Israeli writer in Poland, even more popular than Amos Oz.”

Though Oz wasn’t at the festival, his name appeared next to his blurb for Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” on the cover of the Polish translation, which was launched at the Sopot festival. Rabinyan spoke about her book being kept off a high-school recommended-reading list by the Israeli Education Ministry because the plot centers around a love story between a Jewish Israeli girl and a Muslim Palestinian boy. She denounced Education Minister Naftali Bennett for wrongly stating that the novel portrays Israeli soldiers as sadistic war criminals.

“I wouldn’t mind selling fewer copies of the book, as long as the democracy in which I live remains stable and doesn’t devolve into boycotting books,” Rabinyan said. “The book’s removal from the curriculum means that Israeli democracy is being held hostage by politicians who are battering it and exploiting it for their own needs, and wreaking destruction in the education and culture ministries.”

One woman in the audience asked Rabinyan if she thought the book would have received the same treatment had the gender roles been reversed – if the woman were Arab and the man Jewish. Rabinyan said the answer appeared to be yes, based on the Biton Committee’s recommendation on Sami Michael’s 1987 novel “A Trumpet in the Wadi.” The panel recommended that the romance between a Jewish man and an Arab woman be removed from the recommended-reading list for the bagrut matriculation exams.

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Following Haaretz’s report last week about the committee’s recommendation, the Education Ministry’s literature chief insisted that the ministry had no intention to prevent teachers from teaching Michael’s book.

Well, some kibbutzniks

At the festival, the Polish edition of “Borderlife” was also the subject of a workshop led by Chomatowska on contemporary Israeli literature. Books by Zeruya Shalev and Alona Kimhi were also discussed.

Chomatowska sought to show how all three writers create layered images of cities and combine universal thought with Israeli contexts, including some outside the Poles’ typical associations with Israel – the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the kibbutzim.

While the great socialist vision of the kibbutz movement has faded in Israel, in Poland it’s still big on the left as part of a search for alternative models to capitalism models not linked to the four-plus decades of communism. The kibbutzim’s educational method in their glory days was the subject of a talk with writer Yael Neeman. She spoke about her book “We Were the Future,” while director Ran Tal presented his 2007 documentary on the kibbutzim, “Children of the Sun.”

Both talked about what was behind the kibbutzniks’ desire to replace the traditional family model and how each of the two in their work sought to avoid caricaturing the utopian project that philosopher Martin Buber called “an experiment that didn’t fail.”

At Sopot, the Polish affinity for Israeli culture could be seen in many ways. One of the main events was devoted to the work of Hanoch Levin. His widow, actress Lilian Barreto, and his manager, Dani Tracz, explored why his plays are so popular in Poland.

At another event, writer Dror Mishani, who has had three detective novels translated into Polish, looked at the similarities between the Israeli and Polish thriller genres. And Ela Sidi, who immigrated to Israel from Poland 25 years ago and writes in Polish, presented her new novel “Honor Thy Father,” a family drama set in Poland in the 1970s and ‘80s and told through the eyes of a young girl.

Sidi, who also works as a graphic designer for Haaretz, also talked about her previous book, “Izrael oswojony’ (“Israel Accustomed”) a best-seller in Poland that describes Israelis from the point of view of a Polish woman living in Israel.

As the festival came to an end, the Israeli guests received further proof of their literature’s exalted position in Poland: Israel will be the guest of honor at Krakow’s International Book Fair in late October.