Amos Oz ‘overwhelmed’ by film documenting family’s past
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Amos Oz ‘overwhelmed’ by film documenting family’s past

Celebrated Israeli author touched by daughter's journey retracing his mother's steps in Ukraine

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Author Amos Oz  (center) and family watching the film documenting daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger's roots tour to Ukraine, Dec. 10, 2014. (Olga Noa Lavie /Limmud)
Author Amos Oz (center) and family watching the film documenting daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger's roots tour to Ukraine, Dec. 10, 2014. (Olga Noa Lavie /Limmud)

Renowned Israeli novelist Amos Oz, whose 2002 book “A Tale of Love and Darkness” tells the story of his family’s roots in Volyn (historic Volhynia), was “overwhelmed” on Wednesday by a film documenting the journey of Haifa University historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, the author’s daughter, to the region in north-western Ukraine, which was populated by more than 350,000 Jews on the eve of World War II.

In an intimate screening attended by Oz, his wife Nily Zuckerman and Oz’s cousins, Yigal and Ephraim, to whom he referred as “brothers,” along with Jewish philanthropist Matthew Bronfman, the author watched Oz-Salzberger retrace the steps of her grandmother and Oz’s mother, academic Fania Mussman, in the city of Rovno, today Rivne, Ukraine.

In the film, Oz-Salzberger could be seen visiting sites Oz had heard about in his childhood from his mother and aunts, but had never seen with his own eyes – preferring to revive in his imagination, and finally on paper with the publication of “A Tale,” the descriptions and memories of the three sisters who, having received a Zionist education in Hebrew at Rivne’s local Tarbut school, had left the town behind to settle in Mandatory Palestine.

Fania Oz-Salzberger outside grandmother's house in Rivne, November 2014. In the film, Oz-Salzberger could be seen visiting sites author Amos Oz had heard about in his childhood, but never seen with his own eyes. (Yifa Yaakov/The Times of Israel)
Historian Fania Oz-Salzberger outside grandmother’s house in Rivne, November 2014. In the film, Oz-Salzberger could be seen visiting sites author Amos Oz had heard about in his childhood, but never seen with his own eyes. (Yifa Yaakov/The Times of Israel)

Mandatory Palestine was where Oz – then Amos Klausner – was born in 1939. Though his parents did not speak Hebrew at home, Hebrew was the language Oz the boy spoke, the language from which Oz the teenager forged a new last name and the language Oz the man would eventually write in, becoming a celebrated novelist whose oeuvre has been translated into dozens of languages, from Arabic to Chinese.

On Wednesday, Oz, who never visited his mother’s hometown, saw it on the big screen in a short film documenting Oz-Salzberger’s journey to modern-day Rivne on the sidelines of the Limmud FSU conference in Lviv. The November conference included a talk by Oz-Salzberger about her latest collaboration with her father, “Jews and Words.”

After the conference, the historian was whisked by Limmud director Chaim Chesler to Rivne, where a fellow historian, Tel Aviv University Jewish History expert David Assaf, walked Oz-Salzberger through the city’s Jewish landmarks – those where her grandmother and namesake, who committed suicide a few years before she was born, had lived and learned.

Oz watched as his daughter visited the house on 14 Dubinska Street where Fania Mussman and her two sisters, Sonia and Chaya, grew up

And so, Oz watched as his daughter visited the house on 14 Dubinska Street where Fania Mussman and her two sisters, Sonia and Chaya, grew up (and where a plaque commemorating the family was recently installed by Limmud), the Tarbut school where they were taught Hebrew and Zionism, the synagogue which is now run by a Chabad emissary and the Sosenki forest where 20,000 of Rivne’s Jews were shot to death over a period of two days in November 1942.

Oz-Salzberger could be seen commenting in the film that the three sisters’ Zionist upbringing may have saved their lives, as it is in Israel where most descendants of Rivne’s Jews – remainders of a once-flourishing community, immortalized in writing by its Israeli scion, Oz – can now be found.

Shot and produced by Limmud videographer Eli Mandelbaum (who brought his own copy of “A Tale” to the screening to be signed by the author whose novels he had read and loved growing up), the film didn’t just provide glimpses of Rivne’s past, as seen through the lens of Oz’s writing; it also documented Oz-Salzberger’s encounter with the Jewish community living in Rivne today, most of which originates from other regional towns and cities.

Local Jewish children sing Israeli songs at the Chesed Osher community center, November 2014. (Yifa Yaakov/The Times of Israel)
Local Jewish children sing Israeli songs at the Chesed Osher community center, November 2014. (Yifa Yaakov/The Times of Israel)

Oz watched as Oz-Salzberger was greeted warmly by community leader Gennady Frayerman at the Chesed Osher Jewish community center in the city, where Russian translations of his books were put on display alongside Jewish-themed crafts and children’s drawings. Then, he looked on as a choir of local Jewish schoolchildren sang a medley of Israeli songs with Ukrainian-accented patriotic fervor, holding up a large Israeli flag.

As the event drew to a close, a visibly moved Oz stood up unexpectedly and asked to address the crowd.

“Thank you all very much for warming my heart and warming the hearts of the family,” he said in both English and Hebrew. “Thank you all for the trip, for the plaque commemorating my family, on the house that is still standing on Dubinska Street.”

‘The three sisters are the authors of those 150 pages’

He added that in “A Tale,” one of his most widely-read novels, there are “about 150 pages about Rovno that was, and is now gone.” But “they don’t belong to me,” he stressed.

“I was just the pipeline, the messenger. They belong to my Aunt Sonia, my Aunt Chaya, and my mother Fania, whose childhood stories fed into” the book.

“The three sisters are the authors of those 150 pages,” he said, also crediting his grandparents – the three sisters’ parents – with the stories woven into the successful novel.

“We were a very small family,” he said somberly. “We were a huge family in Rovno, but dozens were murdered in Sosenki.”

Oz then thanked Limmud FSU “for providing us with this wonderful souvenir that I’m sure my family will cherish for generations to come.”

From left, Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, Amos Oz's wife Nily Zuckerman, Amos Oz and Matthew Bronfman at the screening in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014. (Olga Noa Lavie /Limmud)
From left, Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, Amos Oz’s wife Nily Zuckerman, Amos Oz and Matthew Bronfman at the screening in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014. (Olga Noa Lavie /Limmud)

Approached by The Times of Israel for comment after the screening, Oz said he was “too overwhelmed” to discuss his reaction to the film.

But considering “A Tale” is now being made into a Hollywood feature film starring Natalie Portman as Fania Mussman, the novelist is likely to revisit the family history more often in the coming months – and perhaps even to finally visit Rovno.

Limmud FSU was founded in 2006 to revive Jewish communal life and identity in the former Soviet Union through open, pluralistic conferences that promote learning, leadership and engagement with the region’s Jewish past.

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