The Boy Who Taught French Jewish Kids to Love Israel

Decades ago, a book about an Israeli boy helped prepare our Paris correspondent for his family's aliyah. Where is that boy now?

Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon
A page from 'Amiram: His Life in Israel.'
A page from 'Amiram: His Life in Israel.'

1.

Shortly before my parents decided to leave and immigrate to Israel, I received a book entitled “Amiram, le petit Israelien” (“Amiram: His Life in Israel,” in English; Chatto & Windus, 1971), for my 10th birthday. I suppose the book was intended to prepare my brother and me for our move to a new and mysterious country, and to introduce us to possible cultural differences. Peering at me from the cover was the impish face of “Amiram,” and it was with curiosity tinged with grim apprehension that I began reading to learn more about the model whose footsteps we were being asked to follow.

It’s probably the most Zionist book ever published in France. Since being published, in 1969, it’s sold a half-million copies and been translated into 14 languages. Throughout the book, Amiram is photographed half-naked or completely unclothed, as he dives into a spring, rides a tricycle, waters the fields, fixes a broken toy, feeds a crow, plants a tree and learns how to drive a tractor.

The book explains that, though it’s not easy to live in Amiram’s country, Amiram loves the place very much, because “as his father explained to him, he has to work hard in order to live as a free man.”

A page from 'Amiram: His Life in Israel.'
A page from 'Amiram: His Life in Israel.'

2.

Amiram, the “little Israeli boy” (the literal translation of the original title) – along with Parana, the boy from the Amazon; Natasha, the girl from Russia; Orongo, a boy from Easter Island; and some 20 others – came into the world thanks to Dominique Sabret-Stern, who was born in 1925 to a traditionalist Jewish family in Alsace. She was the daughter of the noted art curator Philippe Stern. He himself forged the papers that allowed her to cross the barriers of the Nazi occupation and join the Resistance in Paris. At the age of 16 she was informed on, arrested and sent to the Drancy internment camp, but survived thanks to a forged nurse’s license.

The cover of the Hebrew translation of 'Parana: His Life in Brazil.' The Hebrew title is 'Parana, the little Indian.'
The cover of the Hebrew translation of 'Parana: His Life in Brazil.' The Hebrew title is 'Parana, the little Indian.'Credit:

At the end of the war she permanently adopted the pseudonym she had used in the Resistance, “Dominique Darbois,” and joined the French army under that name. She served in Indochina, and by the age of 20 had been awarded the Croix de Guerre in addition to the Resistance Medal. She studied photography at the Ecole du Louvre and had started to work when she met Francis Maziere, an anthropologist adventurer who was looking for a photographer to accompany him in an exploratory expedition in the Amazon jungle. Without giving the matter much thought, Darbois took a camera and joined him. In the jungle, their professional ties would become a personal, lifelong bond.

In 1951, the two returned to Paris with thousands of photographs and stories. They presented them to Claude Nathan-Cahen, son of the veteran Jewish publisher Fernand Nathan, who was trying to save the family business from bankruptcy. To that end, Claude was looking for a way to compete with the children’s book series published by a competitor, “Pere Castor’s Children of the World,” which since 1947 had been a highly successful series about children from exotic lands. Nathan immediately noticed photos of a boy from the Amazon Basin in the package shown him by Darbois and Maziere, and suggested the publication of a their own series of children’s books.

The first book in the series, “Parana: His Life in Brazil,” published in 1952, enjoyed phenomenal success in six countries. Within two years, four books had appeared, the rights to which went on to be sold in 60 countries. The Pere Castor series continued to be published; many other series of books in the same genre also had their genesis in this period. For example, well known in Israel (thanks to the translations by the poet Lea Goldberg) is the series of books by Swedish photographer Anna Riwkin-Brick. In 1951, she published “Ella Kari, the Girl from Lapland,” and subsequently did the photography for a series about children from various countries, some of them written by Astrid Lindgren – perhaps best known for her Pippi Longstocking books. A more popular series originated in Germany, and all the editions were successful, but the biggest seller in France was “Amiram.”

3.

A page from 'Amiram: His Life in Israel.'
A page from 'Amiram: His Life in Israel.'

Last month, I asked on Facebook whether anyone knew Amiram. According to the book, he was a boy from Kibbutz Ein Gedi, situated along the Dead Sea. However, the well-kept kibbutz archive shows no boy of that name from the time. The mystery was quickly solved: “Amiram” is actually Udi.

It’s me indeed, says Udi Kav, who is now 54 and, as befits the contemporary model of an Israeli, is employed in high-tech. Udi has plenty of memories from the kibbutz, but he definitely also remembers the two weeks when he didn’t go to preschool, because every day he went for a hike with a French photographer, his mother and a representative of the Foreign Ministry.

Possibly because of her Jewishness, or because she was already occupied with other projects, Darbois preferred not to sign off on the Israeli book in the series, so Francis Maziere is given credit for both the text and the photos. “For the photographs, I climbed a huge palm tree in Ein Gedi’s magnificent date grove, I turned on big irrigation taps and, most important, I drove a tractor,” Udi Kav recalls. The seminal chapter in the book is about Masada. Amiram cries when his father tells him the story of the Dead Sea fortress, “and he understands that it’s indeed preferable to give up life as a free person rather than to remain alive as slaves,” because Amiram “knows that he is a Jew and dreams that one day all the children of the world will love the Jews and Israel.”

Kav notes that although the text is the product of the author’s imagination, he identifies with the message even now. “The country was small then, fewer than three million inhabitants,” he says. “We were sad when Prime Minister Eskhol died and happy when we heard on the news that [Egyptian President] Nasser died. With the years and growing age and time, I understood that I and my family and the small software company I established are taking part in a project that is indescribable in words. I love Israel, I feel good here. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

4.

A page from 'Amiram: His Life in Israel.'
A page from 'Amiram: His Life in Israel.'

Two years ago, French actor , who has been convicted four times for Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic remarks, tried unsuccessfully to get books published by the Fernand Nathan company removed from the curriculum in France, because they “promote Zionism at the expense of other nations.” “Amiram” is no longer in bookstores, but its protagonist continues to star to this day in sixth-grade textbooks in France and in an anthology published by Fernand Nathan in 2003.

Some of the French children who got the book about Amiram as a bar-mitzvah present back in the day – sometimes two or three copies – have immigrated to Israel, or at least spend their summer vacation there. Many of them keep the book in Tel Aviv, in an apartment they bought in part under Amiram’s influence, though they’ve never met him and don’t know his real name. “Photography is not a means of documentation,” Darbois said before her death, in 2014, “photography is an art that’s intended to draw us closer to the other.”

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