Samuel Josef Agnon

(Samuel Josef Czaczkes, 1888-1970) Writer, Nobel Prize laureate. Born in Buczacz, the son of a trader in hides. As he was growing up, he gained familiarity with both Chasidic traditions and European culture, studied the Talmud and the German language. He learned the Agadot (rabbinical parables) from his father, and his mother introduced him to the world of German fairy tales.

He began writing when he was eight, and published his first poem at the age of fifteen. He was a regular contributor to Jewish publications in Krakow. When he left Buczacz as a nineteen-year-old, he was already the author of over 70 texts published in Hebrew or Yiddish. After leaving Buczacz, he never wrote anything else in Yiddish. His hometown nevertheless remained very important to him, and became a prototype for the shtetl-always present in his writing.

After abandoning his family and religious practices and arriving in Eretz Israel in 1908, he was unable to feel at home here. He was not a religious person, and did not have the ambitions of the settlers, for whom work was the highest value. The Jews who came from Russia looked down on those from Polish Galicia. In 1908 he also published a story titled Opuszczone żony (Abandoned Wives), whose title gave rise to his pseudonym, Agunot. Agunot tells about the parting of two lovers; Eretz Israel and the Diaspora; man and his soul; faith and secular life. He was deeply concerned about these issues and took that name because it best reflected his inner conflict, which was at the same time the source of his inspiration.

In 1912, he went to Germany, where he came into contact with Jewish intellectuals and leaders of the Zionist movement. He studied and began collecting rare Hebrew books. Thanks to financial support from the publisher of his works, Abraham Josef Stybl, and from the wealthy businessman Salman Schocken, he was able to concentrate solely on his intellectual and literary work. In 1924, most of his books and manuscripts burned in a house fire. After this event, he returned to Jerusalem, where there was a second fire in 1929. In one of his stories, Nocny gosc (A Guest for the Night) (1938), he reflected on the symbolic significance of those fires, comparing them to the Temple which was also destroyed twice. He saw his time in Germany as a symbol of Jews' exile. He sought non-religious links to tradition. He considered himself to be an heir of the great authors, and contemporary Hebrew literature as a substitute for the holy books, though as a modern writer he could not participate in Jewish religious rites. His secular stories, which very loosely alluded to the tradition he once rejected, became his way of stressing links to tradition.

In his early works, usually set in Poland, he often described the life of religious Jews in a positive way. His later works, however, reflect his complicated, negative attitude towards the world, and to the Jewish world in particular. His works tell of the collapse of the old order, a loss of innocence, conflicted feelings and exile, and about the spiritual devastation of the Jewish world.

Agnon wrote four novels: The Bridal Canopy, A Guest for the Night, Only Yesterday and Shira. In 1954 and 1958, he received a state award, and in 1966 the Nobel Prize, the first in the history of Hebrew literature.

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