Could Yehuda Amichai's Priceless Archive Have Been Kept in Israel?

A few years before his death in 2000, one of Israel's leading poets clandestinely arranged for the sale of his personal and literary materials.

Yehuda Amichai, one of the greatest Hebrew poets of our time, passed away on September 22, 2000. Loved in life, and even more so after his death, Amichai was cherished by people from all walks of life and political persuasions.

Hundreds of young people thronged to Safra Square in Jerusalem to bid farewell to their beloved poet after his death. Among the many who passed in front of his coffin were then-President Moshe Katsav, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg. None of these people knew that by that time, the original manuscripts of Amichai’s work, as well as journals, correspondence and innumerable documentary materials, had been sold and were already thousands of miles away from his home in Jerusalem. I was one of the few who were “in the know” about the secret sale and the relocation of Amichai’s archive to an American university, whose identity was not revealed initially.

Three years earlier, in early March 1997, in my capacity as director of the state archives, I was making my way through the Jerusalem neighborhood of Yemin Moshe toward Amichai’s home. Several days earlier, a request from Amichai’s attorney, Arnan Gabrieli, had been sent to the offices of the Israel State Archives. Gabrieli informed the state archivist that “one of the most important universities in the United States has approached [his] client with an offer to purchase his private archive.” He added that “the university wishes to preserve and manage the archive for research purposes.” A long and detailed list of the contents of the Amichai archives was attached to the letter, which was sent with the purpose of obtaining legal permission to take the materials out of the country, as per the Archives Law 1955.

The tense and emotional meeting with Chana and Yehuda Amichai that morning made it clear to me that they were determined to sell and convey the entire contents of the archive abroad as soon as they received the necessary authorization. The 1955 law loosely defines privately owned archival material whose removal from Israel requires the permission of the state archives as, “[materials] which, irrespective of where they are found, are deemed relevant to the study of the nation’s history, its people, the state, society, or that bear on the legacy of reputable persons.” Yehuda Amichai and his work undoubtedly fulfilled these legal criteria.

As per section 16 of the law, the state archivist has two options when dealing with such collections: The first is “to peruse the archival material and to photocopy it, but without allowing public access to the copied information unless authorized to do so by the owner or copyright holder, in accordance with the conditions agreed upon by the archivist and the owner of the archival material.” The second option: to approve transfer of the materials elsewhere, without compelling the recipient to leave copies behind in Israel.

The Amichai family knew of these alternatives and asked the state archives not to use its authority to compel them to leave copies of Yehuda’s writings in the country even under the condition that the materials be made available for public viewing only many years later. The American university insisted, they claimed, that no copies be made and left in Israel, otherwise there would be no deal. The family rejected my suggestion that the transaction be delayed so that a sum of money be raised within Israel that could match the university’s offer. Their reason was simple: They did not wish their intention to sell the archive to become public knowledge.

The then-national archivist, Prof. Evyatar Friesel, was charged with dealing with this matter, in accordance with the Archives Law, which states that the person in his post is the final instance when it comes to dealing with materials of special cultural value. Friesel’s position was that Amichai should not be compelled to leave a copy of the archive if that would jeopardize the transaction. He approved the removal of the writings from Israel, provided that “the archive abroad will be fully accessible to the public, including, of course, Israelis.” The legal advisor of the Prime Minister’s Office (to whose office the state archives unit belongs) did not overturn Freisel’s decision.

Thus, in May 1998, after more than a year of negotiations, agreements about the conditions of sale, the treatment of the materials and future public access to them were reached between the Amichai family and the foreign purchasers. The state archivist’s final authorization was given six months later, allowing the writings to be shipped abroad.

The few who knew about the sale of the archive kept it a secret, even after Amichai’s death. The first to reveal it was the Jewish-American weekly, Forward, in April 2001. According to the Forward – as quoted subsequently in a report by Yair Sheleg in Haaretz – Amichai, who wished to secure his family’s financial future, had sold the archive to Yale University’s Beinecke Library for a sum exceeding $200,000. The article goes on to say that negotiations had gone on for about 10 years.

Letters, diaries, sketches

The news of the archive’s expatriation shocked lovers of Amichai’s poetry and Hebrew culture and literature. No one condemned Amichai, whose choice was seen as the unfortunate consequence of economic need. But many sharply criticized the country’s cultural institutions for failing to prevent the sale. This charge was baseless, however. According to Rafi Weiser, the then director of the manuscripts department of the National Library in Jerusalem, a Sotheby’s auction house sales manager had informed the library of Amichai’s intention to sell the archive back in 1993, though it did not suggest that the library should try purchasing it. Weiser was quoted as saying that the library’s director nevertheless tried to raise the funds, but failed. Weiser concluded that the family was not interested in selling the archive to a local buyer, and added: “We could probably have prevented the deal by leaking Amichai’s intention to the media. The public pressure would certainly have sabotaged the sale. But we decided to respect his wish and keep things quiet.”

The director of the state archives, in his meeting with the family, also encountered the family’s strenuous objections to publicizing the archive’s sale as long as Amichai was still alive.

My brief visit to the family’s home left me with an impression of the extensiveness, diversity and richness of the Amichai archive. The English catalog that was submitted to the state archives was prepared in 1992 by the director of Sotheby’s book department in Tel Aviv. It lists no fewer than 1,500 letters that Amichai received between the beginning of the 1960s and the early 1990s from dozens of writers, poets, intellectuals and politicians, among them Avraham Shlonsky, A.B. Yehoshua, Natan Yonathan, Natan Zach, Amos Oz, Amir Gilboa, Haim Gouri, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Shimon Peres, Shulamit Aloni, Yitzhak Navon and Teddy Kollek. Correspondents from overseas included Amichai’s close friend, the poet Ted Hughes, as well as Arthur Miller, Erica Jong, Paul Celan and many other notable figures.

The most significant items in the archive are the dozens of manuscripts of Amichai’s poems, stories and plays, which for various reasons were never published. Some were incomplete; as for other works, he may have felt they were not yet ripe for publication. In addition, some 50 notebooks and notepads, which comprise some 1,500 pages of various notes, poems, thoughts and drafts, dating from the 1950s onward, complete the collection.

Reliable and important biographical information related to Amichai’s life and work, including accounts of private and literary experiences, can be found in 82 volumes of personal journals in the archives at Yale. Amichai diligently kept these large-format diaries for nearly 40 years. They contain over 3,500 pages of miscellaneous writings, personal (sometimes highly intimate) sketches and descriptions of private events and also public, political and social ones all written in his small, dense handwriting.

Amichai understood the value of his journals and described it thus (according to Sotheby’s 1992 list of the contents of the archive): “I would say that these thousands of pages are actually going down to the very roots, sources and deep layers of the creative process, of the deep entangled involvement of life and art, words and deeds. Many of these have become part of my published work and many others may need a few more decades of my life to get settled in my work. They reach back to the early Sixties.”

No less important are the dozens of original manuscripts in Hebrew, English and in other languages, which include drafts of works with handwritten corrections and comments made by Amichai and perhaps also by others. In addition, the archive contains over 2,000 newspaper clippings that document how Amichai’s work was received by readers over a period of 45 years. To these are added thousands of documentary items, all arranged and cataloged, including texts for lectures, photographs, recordings, posters, honorary diplomas, as well as supplementary material pertaining to the various events, ceremonies, celebrations and conferences in which Amichai participated in Israel and abroad. There are 104 archival crates, all told, at Yale, most of which are open to the public.

Israel has very few personal collections that are as impressive as Amichai’s; any scholars wishing to study his life and work in depth must travel to New Haven, Connecticut. Even given the technological and logistic marvels of our Internet age, it is hard for many to come to terms with the fact that his archive is not available here in Israel.

What conclusions should be drawn from this unfortunate affair? How can we make sure that such cases do not recur in the future? One way is to legally compel institutions and individuals who intend to sell and transfer collections of cultural and national value abroad to make that intention public. A failure to comply with this requirement should be considered a felony. Second, a legal channel for appealing the state archivist’s decision before a higher authority needs to be established. Third, the state should set up a public fund for the acquisition of unique cultural treasures. Finally, we should increase awareness, and verbal opposition among the public vis-a-vis the export of nationally valuable collections.