Ukrainian exile

S.Y. Agnon was inspired by his now-reeling Ukrainian hometown

The city of Buchach played a central role in much of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s works, and has long honored its celebrity son

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Buchach, Ukraine, the hometown of celebrated author S.Y. Agnon, before he immigrated to Israel prior to World War One. (Courtesy: Ukrainian Jewish Encounter)
Buchach, Ukraine, the hometown of celebrated author S.Y. Agnon, before he immigrated to Israel prior to World War One. (Courtesy: Ukrainian Jewish Encounter)

It was Sunday afternoon when Jeffrey Saks, director of research at Jerusalem’s Agnon House, where Nobel Prize winning author S.Y. Agnon lived and worked for much of his adult life, heard that his counterpart at the Agnon Literary Center in Buchach, Ukraine was fleeing with her family.

The two had planned a Zoom event for that evening, discussing how they each — Saks, a New Jersey-raised rabbi and Mariana Maksymiak, a non-Jewish Ukrainian — came to their shared passion for Agnon, a Jewish writer who wrote in Hebrew.

But Maksymiak, the program director, called Saks to let him know she wouldn’t be able to make it as she was leaving Buchach, seeking a safe haven from the ongoing Russian invasion.

Buchach, the city where Agnon was born and raised, is about 150 kilometers outside of Lviv, in the western part of Ukraine.

“I’ve met her in Jerusalem and Buchach,” said Saks, who was last in Buchach in 2018 as part of the ongoing relationship between the two literary centers. “She wanted to get this center going in Buchach to raise the level of culture there.”

Agnon himself left Buchach, then considered part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, at the age of 20, when he emigrated to Israel. He soon traveled to Germany for what was meant to be an extended trip but lasted 12 years as he got stuck in the upheaval of World War I, married and had two children.

The Jews of Buchach suffered terribly under Russian occupation during World War I, and under Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1941, saw their communal life largely shut down or forced underground, according to historical accounts. The town was then occupied by the Nazis and the entire remaining Jewish population was murdered in a series of mass killings.

While Agnon only returned once to his hometown for a more substantive visit in 1930, when he toured through Galicia — what is now western Ukraine — he was already hailed as a local boy who had become a minor celebrity through his writings, many of them about his childhood home.

Outside the Agnon Literary Center in Buchach, Ukraine, where a bust of the Nobel Prize winning Jewish author celebrates the writer’s hometown. (Courtesy: Agnon Literary Center)

That 1930 visit became Agnon’s novel, “A Guest for the Night,” about a character who returns to his town and depicts the alienating discomforts of being a guest in one’s own home.

“You can’t go back home again,” said Saks.

There were no Jews left in Buchach when they chose their most famous son, Agnon, as the focus of the literary center, said Saks.

Shai Agnon (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shai Agnon. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Of course, there was no country called Ukraine back then, either,” he said. “Agnon himself couldn’t have written a single sentence in Ukrainian. He was a Jew writing in Hebrew in Jerusalem, but he put their little town on the map.”

According to Saks, there are 23 volumes in the collected Hebrew writings of Agnon, with about 40% of the stories set in Buchach and the old world of Galicia — but the presence of the Eastern European town can be sensed throughout Agnon’s works.

Agnon’s magnum opus “Tmol Shilshom” (“Only Yesterday”) is a 607-page novel of the Second Aliyah set in Jaffa and Jerusalem, but the protagonist is ever-mindful of the Buchach he left behind, added Saks.

In Agnon’s honor, the Buchach township helped fund the costs of the literary center, placing a bust of the writer outside, renaming the street in his name as the center translated Agnon’s writings into Ukrainian.

They hold a writers residency each summer in which Ukrainian authors are invited to Buchach to read Agnon and write something inspired by his work.

Saks hasn’t been able to visit since the onset of the pandemic, as the residency went online during the pandemic.

When Saks’ Buchach colleague, Maksymiak, canceled the Sunday evening conversation, he invited Vasyl Makhno and Natalia A. Feduschak, two Ukrainian authors living in the US, to speak about the current situation, and what it means to be a Ukrainian living in exile.

“It’s self-imposed exile,” said Saks, “but they continue to live in the Ukrainian language, writing for the audience back home.”

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