JERUSALEM (AP) - Best-selling humorist Ephraim Kishon, the Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who captured Israel's foibles in biting satires but often felt underappreciated at home, has died at his home in Switzerland of an apparent heart attack. He was 80.
Kishon, who won the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2003, died in the shower on Saturday, said his son, Rafi.
Kishon, who was popular in Europe, particularly in German-speaking countries, had an ambivalent relationship with Israel, his son said. The author considered the creation of Israel the greatest miracle of the 20th century, but often felt unfairly treated by Israeli literary critics and intellectuals, Rafi Kishon said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking at the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, spoke of Kishon's transformation from Holocaust refugee to cultural icon.
"These hardships could not prevent the blossoming of talent and an incredible
writing ability," Sharon said, noting that Kishon wrote in Hebrew, a language
he learned as an immigrant.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav said Kishon was one of Israel's most prominent artists. "I don't think anyone could compete with him in expressing the process of absorption (into Israeli society)," Katsav told Israel Army Radio.
Born Ferenc Hoffmann in Budapest, Hungary, on August 23, 1924, he narrowly escaped the Nazi Holocaust. In one Nazi camp, a German officer lined up Jewish inmates and shot one in 10 dead, passing him by. He later managed to escape the Nazis, as he was already en route to the Sobibor death camp.
Kishon later wrote of the experience "They made a mistake, they left one satirist alive."
Immigrating to Israel in 1949, he changed his name, and became one of the new country's most revered writers of humorous but barbed essays and later scripted some of its most iconic films, among them "Salah Shabati," about the troubles of a poor, unskilled Jewish immigrant from North Africa, and "Azoulai the policeman."
Israeli actor Haim Topol, a longtime friend who starred in many of Kishon's plays, said the author set the public agenda in the 1960s when he wrote a column for the mass circulation daily Maariv, often spiking his criticism with humor that appealed to Israelis of all types.
"He held up morale in this country and had a great influence over (then-Prime Minister Levi) Eshkol," Topol told Army Radio.
He is survived by Lisa, his third wife, and three grown children.
In Israel, Kishon was often criticized for spending much of his time abroad, particularly in his second home in Switzerland. Rafi Kishon noted that his father continued to write in Hebrew, and frequently visited Israel.
The younger Kishon said his father felt pleased with his success in Europe, particularly in Germany.
"He said this is a great feeling, that the children of my hangmen are my admirers," Rafi Kishon said.
Kishon's body is expected to flown to Israel on Sunday for burial in Tel Aviv.
Sunday January 30, 2005
Author and satirist Ephraim Kishon passed away late Saturday night at the age of 80.
Kishon died in Switzerland, apparently of a heart attack, with his third wife
Lisa by his side. His coffin will be brought to Israel on Sunday, where he will
be buried in the cemetery on Tel Hai street in Tel Aviv, where writers and
artists are traditionally laid to rest.
Kishon, one of Israel's most prolific writers, was born in Budapest and was deported to a Nazi concentration camp in World War II. He immigrated to Israel in 1949. "They made a mistake they left one satirist alive," Kishon later said, summing up the period in his book "The Scapegoat."
Kishon's first satire published in Israel was "The Blaumilch Canal" in the newspaper Davar.
In the 1950s, he started a regular column in Maariv. In the 1960s, Kishon began working in film, writing and directing "Salah Shabati." In the last three decades Kishon became known throughout the world as a successful author and playwright. His works have been translated into 37 languages. In recent years, several of his best-known books were reissued, and a new play of his came out a month ago.
Kishon was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement in 2002, for his unique contribution to society and the state. The judges panel described Kishon as "a light rescued from the fire of the Holocaust, who scaled the heights of satire in the world."
They also praised Kishon's work for reflecting Israeli society and rendering concretely the socioeconomic distress, unemployment, poverty and harsh living conditions of immigrants in the state's formative years.
Kishon is survived by his wife, three children Rafi, Amir and Renana and five grandchildren.
The Hungarian-born writer is believed to have suffered a heart attack in Switzerland, where he had lived for many years. Mr Kishon survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Israel in 1949, where he established a reputation for satirising life in the new Jewish state. His books were translated into 37 languages and he was particularly popular in German-speaking countries.
In the 1960s, Mr Kishon turned to writing and directing films. One of them - Salah Shabati - dealt with the prejudice faced by
North African Jews in Israel.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, spoke of Mr Kishon's transformation from Holocaust refugee to cultural icon. "These hardships could not prevent the blossoming of talent and an incredible writing ability," Mr Sharon said, the Associated Press news agency reported.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav said Mr Kishon was one of Israel's most prominent artists. "I don't think anyone could compete with him in expressing the process of absorption [into Israeli society]," Mr Katsav said.
Kishon, born in Budapest, Hungary, was an influential force on Israeli culture as a prolific author, satirist, playwright, and director.
Born with the given name Ferenc Hoffman, Kishon changed his name when he immigrated to Israel in 1949. "Ephraim Kishon reflected in his writing the face of Israeli society and the problems of [immigrant] absorption during the early years of the state, and so contributed immensely to national morale and the solid integration of the waves of immigration," read the Israel Prize citation in part.
At the opening of the Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remarked that Kishon's "monumental cultural undertakings will remain with us and with our future generations."
Kishon, who survived wartime Budapest by miraculously escaping from a concentration camp, was an ardent Zionist.
After the end of World War II during the Stalinist regime, Kishon made a living in Budapest as a journalist for a satiric newspaper which was under the wing of the communist administration, but the work stifled and frustrated him. Under the guise of a trip to Prague, Kishon escaped to Israel with his wife by way of Slovakia.
Habimah theater in Tel Aviv staged his first play "His name precedes him" in 1953, which met which great popular success and launched his career as a satiricist and writer. In the 1960s, he also turned his talents to film.
Kishon's satirical writing created a counterpoint to the mythical, heroic image of the young state. In newspaper columns, skits and movies, like the 1964 box-office hit Salah Shabati (starring Haim Topol), Kishon focused on the miserable, anti-heroic aspects of an overly bureaucratized state, becoming one of the first writers to legitimate the development of our self-deprecating humor.
His weekly column in Maariv created figures who became national icons, from Schtuks, the plumber who never showed up on time and never "the Gingi" that generic, blase Israeli whose carelessness could be charming at times, and cause disasters at others.
In addition to winning the 2002 Israel Prize for Life Achievement, he was also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His works have been translated into 37 languages.
Among the many works he leaves behind are the movies Salah Shabati (1963) and The Policeman Azoulai (1971), which won Golden Globes in the Best Foreign Film category and were nominated in the same category for Oscars.
Following are Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?s remarks from the start of today?s Cabinet meeting:
?Last night, one of the cultural giants of our generation, Israel Prize laureate Ephraim Kishon, passed away. The story of Kishon?s life is the story of the Jewish people in our time. A refugee youth, a brand plucked from the fire, reached a new country, the shores of which he was unfamiliar with, and was surprised by its custom of writing from right-to-left. These difficulties could not prevent his talents from bursting forth - his virtuoso writing ability, his novel uses of the Hebrew language he had come to know, his creation of a great cultural reservoir. He created an entire world of culture for the country.
With a sharp wit, both favorably and critically, Kishon set before us an exact mirror from which the ups and downs, fears, arts and opinions of Israeli culture could be seen. I met Kishon many times in recent years. During these meetings, we discussed various issues, such as politics, current events, immigrant absorption, self-deprecating humor and also the painful fact that for many years Kishon felt rejected by the Israeli cultural establishment. Always, in all of our conversations, the issue which formed Kishon?s life came up - the Holocaust. We always thought of how much talent was lost to the Jewish people in the Shoah.
Ephraim Kishon died yesterday but his monumental cultural works remain with us and with future generations; thus we will remember him.?
Ephraim Kishon (b. 1924, Budapest, Hungary) was born Ferenc Kishont. He immigrated to Israel in 1949 and started publishing in Hebrew two years after his arrival. His play, "The Marriage Contract", had one of the longest runs in the Israeli theater, and his feature films "Sallah Shabbati" and "Blaumilch Canal", which he wrote, directed and produced, enjoyed international distribution. His sketches and plays have been performed in translation on the stages and television networks of several countries, and his books have been translated into 37 languages.
In 1993, Kishon was awarded Germany's highest citation for literature. In 2002 he was awarded the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, for his unique contribution to society and the state.
During the celebration of Ephraim Kishon's 80th birthday in Tel Aviv last August, the guest of honor arrived early and sat at the round table in the front of the hall, awaiting the guests who came on a pilgrimage to congratulate him. Two people stood out in this procession of well-wishers - a mother and her son: Modi Bar-On came to Kishon's party with his mother. The three shook hands, stood together for a while, were photographed, and spoke only a little. It seemed as though they were at a loss for words, and they looked very moved.
Bar-On - a film director, television host and the narrator of
the series "In the Land of the Jews," a history of Israeli humor - was deeply
touched by the fact that Kishon had invited him to his birthday party, and said
it was one of the high points of his career. Kishon, who died Saturday in
Switzerland, was the writer he had worshiped since childhood. Bar-On read every
one of his books dozens of times and knew him very well, down to the smallest
detail. As in the case of many other Israelis, the characters of Treivitz the
shoe salesman, Stucks the plumber, Glick the engineer or Goldshtick the painter
- all were an integral part of Bar-On's personal biography.
These imaginary characters also helped him when he came to interview Kishon for the series. The interview lasted six hours, Bar-On explained yesterday in a conversation by phone from Miami. "He was very impressed and flattered by my expertise in Kishonism, and I think that is one of the things that caused him to open up to me." This man, who by his nature - and in his writing as well - was always somewhat distant and reserved, and whose great advantage was that he observed and recorded Israelis from the inside, but always to some extent from the outside as well, demonstrated a warm and cordial side in his conversation with Bar-On. "He exuded some kind of softness that I hadn't been aware of. The climax was when he suddenly started to sing songs about Stalin from the 1950s, in Hungarian!"
Only later, on second and third readings, did Bar-On understand that something of this softness was also evident in Kishon's writing as well. "If we think about `Striped Chewing Gum,' then what is actually described there is a very intimate family portrait of a father who stands and screams at his son. I think that I would never describe such a scene."
Perhaps this connection, both concealed and open, between fathers and sons, is the secret of Kishon's attraction for Bar-On. Perhaps that is the real, profound reason for the fact that as a child and a youth, he read Kishon so much. It may be that for Bar-On and for an entire generation of Ashkenazi children (Jews of European origin) from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Kishon was the go-between, the interpreter, the guide and the collective biographer of their parents.
"My father is Hungarian, and he comes from the same places as Kishon and they were so much alike," Bar-On says. "So in my house, the books explained the things that weren't spoken about: Ka-Tzetnik [a Holocaust survivor, and later author], on the one hand, and Kishon, on the other."
Kishon was certainly a product of his period, yet over the years he felt that his humor had been forgotten. In one sense, the story that he told time after time, which was almost an ideology that he promoted - about the gentle, little man who is trampled by the bureaucracy and the establishment - was "defeated" by other stories that were more blatant, coarser - more Israeli.
In another sense, Bar-On believes that the story told by Kishon continues to reverberate in local humor all the time: "First of all, all the humorist writers who followed him, like Ephraim Sidon or Yehonatan Gefen or Danny Sanderson, were influenced by him. But beyond that, if we look at the satiric television program `A Wonderful Country,' for example - then what is it, but a recent variation on `Sallah Shabbati' and `Half-Assed Forever'? There, too, one finds exactly the same idea of grabbing everything that is screwed up here, and in the same breath, somehow, loving it."
Kishon, from the very un-Israeli place from which he came, defined Israeliness. But in the final analysis, Bar-On notes, Israeliness defined him as well. "Look at the last book that he wrote, about modern art, `The Sweet Revenge of Picasso.' It's a well-known and familiar indictment, in which he conducts a dialogue with his readers from Germany and Austria, and replies to their letters by means of the book, as though this entire discussion does not come from here. But he even wrote that book in Hebrew; only through Hebrew did he achieve perfection. It's true that in his writing, as always in writing, there is something more distant and refined than in other Hebrew writing, but there are successors in this style as well, like Eli Mohar or Doron Rosenblum."
Kishon did in fact capture Hebrew. He wrote diligently and declared: "I write in order to escape depression," as he described it to Bar-On. Only in Hebrew, under a strong fluorescent light in his study, only on paper and with a pen, in impossible handwriting, draft upon draft, with erasures and internal codes. But he never managed to get rid of his Hungarian accent, and perhaps in one sense, it saved him from the well-known rumor mill of famous television personalities. "He wasn't a good `patient' on all the various political talk shows, and this may have saved him, as opposed to his good friend [Yosef] Tommy Lapid. He didn't go there much. But it may be that Tommy Lapid went on political talks shows, and into politics, after he had tried and understood that he would not be able to be a good humorist like Kishon."
What will be remembered of Kishon now? The truth is that after a long period during which he felt rejected, he enjoyed a late period of grace while he was still alive. He received the Israel Prize, his books were published by Israeli publisher Yedioth Ahronoth in a new edition, people celebrated his 80th birthday. Something in Kishon softened. In his private life, he married Lisa Vitachek after the death of his wife Sarah ("the little woman").
Bar-On believes that Kishon's books will continue to be sold. He ventures to hope that one of the Israeli theaters will now put on a new production of his play "Ho, Ho, Julia."
"Once Kishon wrote that a writer is a dead humorist. So certainly from this aspect, now he is very satisfied," says Bar-On. Could they have become friends? "The interview with him could have been the start of a wonderful friendship," he answers, "had we not been the people we were."
Haaretz Monday 31.01.05
This column originally appeared on May 9, 1980. The other day I suddenly discovered my first piece for the Post had appeared in this paper just 25 years ago. A whole slice of my life and the life of this country is recorded in the hundreds of articles that must have appeared since then, yet of the readers for whom they were written I know nothing. And whose fault is that? Is this writer cut off from his readers for lack of contact, or are my readers cut off from me for lack of interest? Be that as it may, there's no communication between us. Or there is, but it's all one way. So? So maybe the profession of funnyman dooms one to seclusion, because whatever people may think, humorists aren't particularly sociable creatures. They don't go around wreathed in smiles, and they're about as frolicsome as a large printing press.
In fact, they're a pretty morose lot, and nearly always tired. Yes, and they never tell a joke but, on the contrary, people tell them jokes. For that's another thing: There's no subject in the world ? barring Muddle East affairs ? on which all men are experts. But humor? Everyone is an expert on that. The man hasn't been born yet who'll confess he has no sense of humor. So they tell me jokes ? and that is the communication I have with my public. It's very sad. So then, seeing I'm sad, people decide to cheer me up. "Listen" they say, that piece you did last Friday, man that was really something! Unforgettable it was, that piece with the whatsit, the you-know-what-I-mean... the... what was it? Oh, well... That's the communication between us.
Also occasionally the phone goes, and I pick it up and a voice says: "Say something funny! Hee-hee." And once a week some old lady calls to ask if she can have a little talk with me. What about, lady? She can't tell me on the phone. So we meet, and it turns out she has written a poem, and don't I think that with a few minor changes it would make a perfect film script? I get letters as well: "To be frank, I don't as a rule agree with your opinions, but after reading this Friday's piece I feel I must tell you: You are a swine, a traitor, a dirty communist, and I bet you're not even Jewish...."
People read my books, too. I have been waiting all my life to just once actually see someone buying one of them, but I never have yet. My personal conclusion is that people don't buy books, they only borrow them. What else? Nothing. That's all the communication there is.
So I decided to take matters in hand. If the public won't come to Mohammed, Mohammed will go to the public and hold an Evening of Questions and Answers with them. Which I did. At the end of such evenings I would turn to my audience and ask: "Please, my friends, tell me what you read of me, what you like to read, what's good, what's bad, why, how, where?" At the Hebrew University, one blue-eyed girl student got up and said: "Well, to tell you the truth it's like this: So long as you wrote about your little everyday troubles, about your car, your neighbor Felix, we did enjoy your pieces. But then you suddenly started writing politics, and got all serious and all, so I for one stopped reading you." Ouch!
It's true that over the past few years I have made an occasional sortie into what's called the Op-Ed page ? not for envy of the lofty status of political commentators, but because a man changes along with his environment. And what with a war here, a peace there, and trouble all over the place, that environment has grown pretty grim. One day, in other words, I realized that I was growing rather more interested in the PLO's doings up in Lebanon than in the plumber's down my drains. In consequence, I found it getting harder and harder to write about my glasses, say, even though I still keep losing them, just as in the good old days. It's what I see through them when I find them that bothers me more nowadays. Maybe it's also a matter of age. A man can't write and write without getting a little older.
And with all due respect, my readers are getting on themselves. The lean young Israeli who read my first piece has meanwhile consumed a lot of heavy food and light entertainment, has cheered Tel Aviv Maccabi for exercise, washed his brains with Soap, and confined his reading to newspapers and the subtitles on Jordan TV. So what interests a reader who no longer reads? I received a straightforward answer to that from a student at the Haifa Technion: "Tell you the truth, it's like this: When you write about things that matter, about political issues, we do like reading you. But when you start on about your son again, or your parrot, or such rubbish, well, really...."
Help! My dentist informed me last week that he only reads my short pieces. His soldier son reads my novels too, but doesn't get their point. The lady at the post office only reads about my kids. She sees no kids ? she stops in the middle. Eight-year-old Danny reads everything, always, twice over. My highbrow friends have given me up long ago. In the suburbs it's just my movies they want. My wife says I'm out of touch. My uncle likes my puns and nothing else. Our babysitter thinks I'm cute. I think I'm going nuts.
Help! It seems there's nothing for it but to hold a survey. I shall have to gather my remaining readers about me and settle the question with them: Please tell me, once and for all, what you approve of in my writing and what you don't. Are you really fed up with those small everyday events? Is a humorist ever allowed to be serious, or half-serious, or just a third? Am I going up, or down, or stuck in a rut?
Have you stopped reading me because of that piece about my dog / President Carter / parsley / taxes / you haven't stopped? And anyhow, what do you think a veteran humorist must do who has already written twice on every subject under the sun ? lengthwise and breadthwise and left to right and top to bottom of the barrel? Subtle hints that it's time to quit will be respectfully considered. Only talk to me, talk to me alone here with my pen and my communication gap. You needn't, as it says in the Geneva Convention, give any personal data except your name, your occupation, your age and your opinion. I shall be happy to make your acquaintance, my unknown reader.
Translated by Miriam Arad
JERUSALEM, Jan. 30 - Ephraim Kishon, a Holocaust survivor who became one of Israel's best-known humorists with his satirical books and movies popular here and in Europe, died at his home in Switzerland on Saturday, apparently of a heart attack, his family said. He was 80. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of Mr. Kishon on Sunday at the opening of his cabinet meeting, calling him "one of the cultural giants of our generation."
Mr. Kishon was born in Hungary and survived a Nazi concentration camp during World War II before immigrating to Israel in 1949 while in his mid-20's. "They made a mistake; they left one satirist alive," he later wrote.
He swiftly emerged as one of Israel's best-known writers, producing newspaper
essays, plays and novels. He established a theater company and also wrote and
directed films, some of them considered classics in Israel.
His best-known film was "Sallah Shabati," the tale of a poor Jewish immigrant from North Africa battling prejudice and bureaucracy as he tried to assimilate into the young country dominated by Jews of European descent. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award in 1965. Another popular film written and directed by Mr. Kishon, "Ha-Shoter Azulai," released in the United States as "The Policeman," about a frustrated policeman on the verge of retirement, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1972.
Mr. Kishon wrote dozens of books that were translated into more than 30 languages, and his popularity in Europe was particularly strong in Germany. Among his other works are "Look Back, Mrs. Lot!" and "So Sorry We Won!" which was published in 1968 and examined Israel's existence in a hostile Middle East.
He was often asked why he thought he was so well received in Germany. "He said this is a great feeling, that the children of my hangmen are my admirers," Mr. Kishon's son Rafi told Israel's army radio. In his remarks on Sunday, Mr. Sharon noted that Mr. Kishon "felt rejected by the Israeli cultural establishment." "But his monumental cultural works remain with us and with future generations," Mr. Sharon said.
Not feeling fully accepted in Israel, Mr. Kishon eventually moved to Switzerland, where he lived for many years, though he continued to spend a good deal of time in Israel.
He received the Israel Prize, the country's most prestigious honor, in 2002 for lifetime achievement. The judges described him as "a light rescued from the fire of the Holocaust, who scaled the heights of satire in the world."
Mr. Kishon was born in Budapest on Aug. 23, 1924, and various biographies say his given name was Ferenc Kishont or Ferenc Hoffmann. He changed his name after arriving in Israel. His body was being flown from Switzerland to Israel for burial in Tel Aviv. He is survived by Lisa, his third wife, and three grown children.