1924: Germany's Favorite Israeli Writer Was Born

Hungarian-born Ephraim Kishon would have an ambivalent relationship with Israel but become one of its most beloved satirists.

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Ephraim Kishon at his 80th birthday party on August 25, 2004. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

On August 23, 1924, Ephraim Kishon, the man who would become Germany’s favorite Israeli writer,  was born in Budapest. A satirist, novelist, playwright and filmmaker, Kishon went on to sell 43 million copies of his books worldwide – of which 32 million were in German.

Kishon was born by the name Ferenc Hoffmann to a middle-class Hungarian Jewish family. His father was a bank manager, his mother a secretary. He also had one sister, Agnes.

His talent began to show at a young age: Hoffmann won his first writing prize at age 16. But Hungary’s racial laws, enacted between 1938 and 1941, meant that the young Jew could not pursue university studies. And so, in 1942, Hoffmann began training as a goldsmith.

In 1944, five years after World War Two began, the satirist-to-be was sent to a number of labor and concentration camps, where, by virtue of extraordinary luck, he narrowly escaped death several times. A talented chess player, in one camp his skills saved him when the commander wanted an opponent. In another, Kishon was spared when officers lined up prisoners and shot every tenth inmate. En route to the Sobibor death camp in occupied Poland, he escaped, surviving the rest of the war by pretending to be a Slovakian laborer. “They made a mistake—they left one satirist alive,” he would write in his 1998 novel, “The Scapegoat.”

New life

It was after the war that he changed his name from Hoffman to Kishont, which is a version of Hont, a surname common in Hungary, and returned to that country in 1945. There, he discovered that his parents and sister had survived, though many other members of their family had not. In 1948, he got his diploma in art history and metal sculpture. In the meantime, he also started writing humorous articles and plays.  

In 1946, Kishon married his first wife, Chava Klamer, with whom he would have one son. Three years later, in 1949, the pair moved to Israel to escape the Communist regime that had taken power in Hungary.

In the Jewish state, Kishon was to change his name again. His first name, Ferenc, was Hebraicized by an immigration official to Ephraim. Later, he would change Kishont to Kishon.

With no Hebrew or Yiddish to speak of, a writing career in Israel seemed unlikely. Yet within two years Kishon had learned enough Hebrew to write a regular humorous column in HaOmer, a paper for new immigrants. He soon graduated from the easy-Hebrew press and began writing for the liberal leading daily newspaper, Davar. He also published his first book in Israel, "The Pestering Immigrant.”

In 1952, his daily satirical column, “Had Gadya,” debuted in the Ma’ariv newspaper. It would run for 30 years and Kishon would become a leading Israeli satirist. He authored more than 50 award-winning books and plays, and wrote and directed five prize-winning movies. His play, “The Marriage Contract,” was on the longest-running in Israeli theater, according to the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. His 1980 book "Family Stories" is said to have been the most widely sold Hebrew work after the bible.

The reality of life in his new home certainly inspired him: “Salah Shabati,” his 1964 Oscar-nominated film starring Chaim Topol, was based on his experiences at a transit-camp with Moroccan immigrants, for instance.

International success beckoned with his 1959 book “Look Back Mrs Lot,” which was named a New York Times “Book of the Month.” 1959 was also the year he married his second wife, the pianist Sara Lipowitz, with whom he had two children.

Kishon’s international popularity was greatest in Germany, however, where he became a household name after Friedrich Torberg, an Austrian writer, started translating his work into German in the late 1960s. After Torberg died in 1979, Kishon often simply wrote in German himself. In 1990, he won Germany’s highest award for literature.

Despite his success at home, where he was awarded, among other things, the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2002, Kishon felt unappreciated by Israel’s art establishment. In 1981, he set up a second home in Switzerland with his third wife Lisa, and there, in 2005, died of a heart attack. Still, Kishon’s final resting place is Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery, where he lies with some of Israel’s greatest artists and writers.

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