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In Israel, Nobel-winning author Olga Tokarczuk reflects on Poles, Jews and a messiah

Writer says she doesn’t like to get involved in politics, but notes that Poles share Ukraine’s ‘sense of danger that Russia presents to the free world’

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner for literature Olga Tokarczuk poses for a photo after a press conference in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner for literature Olga Tokarczuk poses for a photo after a press conference in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk responds to questions with answers that are as thoughtful and circuitous as many of the passages in her award-winning 2014 novel “The Books of Jacob.”

The 60-year-old, dreadlocked Tokarczuk is currently in Israel for the Writers Festival in Jerusalem, her third time visiting the country.

“Whenever I land, I always feel emotional that this country exists,” she said.

It’s Tokarczuk’s first trip back since winning the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature.

At Sunday evening’s opening session of the International Book Forum and Writers Festival at the Jerusalem YMCA, writer Julian Barnes — from his home in England — was awarded the 2022 Jerusalem Prize, followed by a conversation between Tokarczuk and Tamar Ish-Shalom.

The 912 pages of “The Books of Jacob” are divided into seven books that begin in 1752 in Rohatyn (currently in western Ukraine, but part of Poland prior to World War II) and end in Holocaust-era Korolówka, about Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew who claimed to be the messiah.

Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner for literature Olga Tokarczuk poses with her book ‘The Books of Jacob, during a press conference in Jerusalem, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

“The Books of Jacob” was published in 2014, and only recently translated into Hebrew.

Tokarczuk said she sees the work, a historical novel telling the dual story of Poles and Jews that she spent eight years writing, as her magnum opus.

And yet, said Tokarczuk, speaking to a group of journalists on Sunday afternoon, when Poles speak about the Jews, they speak only about the Holocaust.

“The Poles can see through this book how much these two cultures lived side by side and influenced one another,” said Tokarczuk, who is not Jewish.

Tokarczuk also invoked World War II when reflecting on the current situation in Ukraine and Poland’s role in aiding Ukrainian refugees, with some three million currently taking refuge in her country.

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t hosted or helped in some way,” she said.

The Poles share the Ukrainians’ “sense of danger that Russia presents to the free world,” said Tokarczuk, adding that the Polish government had warned about the risk of Russian aggression for years.

“Nobody could imagine that this war would be so cruel, so anachronistic,” said Tokarczuk, adding that the war brings to mind the horrible images of World War II.

But while she may write political works that examine humanity and society, Tokarczuk doesn’t see herself as interfering in current politics.

She was drawn by chance to the character of Jacob Frank, a two-bit historical figure who converted to Islam and then to Catholicism. Orthodox Jews saw him as a traitor who threatened Jewish life, while Catholics also saw him as a stranger, an infidel who had spent many years in prison.

Tokarczuk spent many years researching his life.

“I looked in museums, archives, all kinds of places that are not the first places you’d look,” she said.

Tokarczuk and her husband traveled though Europe to follow Frank’s journey, and “to see what these places looked like to people,” she said.

“I’m not a historian, I never was, and I didn’t have a system for writing this kind of historical novel. I had to learn it all,” she said.

While Tokarczuk spent many years researching and writing about Jacob Frank, she doesn’t have a lot of empathy for him or understand him.

“Sometimes he’s manipulative and a psychopath, and so when I wrote about him, I always tried to bring in viewpoints of others,” she said.

Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner for literature Olga Tokarczuk poses for a photo after a press conference in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

She compared her writing style to jumping through a creek, from rock to rock.

“In this metaphor, the stones are the historical facts,” said Tokarczuk. “And the water is my imagination, my creativity, my ability to give these facts some meat.”

She said she attempted to write a book that could read as a historical work but would also give readers the pleasure of reading an epic novel.

Tokarcuzk said that “The Books of Jacob” was her biggest creative effort to date, but it took a huge physical toll.

Her friends sent her off to a Chinese doctor who took one look at her and asked what she had been doing that had so depleted her life energies.

She’s better now, but, she said, “I’m not sure I’ll ever do something like this again.”

Tokarcuzk’s next novel, about to be released in Poland, is a thriller.

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