The writer who brought humor and pathos to the Holocaust

Novelist Amir Gutfreund, winner of the 2003 Sapir Prize for Literature, dies of cancer at 52

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

Writer Amir Gutfreund in Tel Aviv on December 31 2007. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Writer Amir Gutfreund in Tel Aviv on December 31 2007. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Amir Gutfreund, the award-winning novelist who died last Friday, was an accomplished writer, mathematician and retired air force officer, but what his agent remembers is his humor.

“He was a source of strength and humor, he was really funny,” said Deborah Harris, whose Jerusalem-based literary agency worked with him starting with his first book. “He was one of the first people to bring humor to the Shoah,” using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.

Gutfreund, 52, who died following a year-and-a-half-long battle with cancer, published his first book, “Our Holocaust,” in 2000, while he was still a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli air force. The book, a fictional account of two children born to Holocaust survivors in a neighborhood full of survivors, was unusual in its humor and use of adolescent voices to tell an adult story.

Harris said the novel offered a glimpse of a particular time and place, with its setting of Haifa, where a generation of Israelis were raised by Holocaust survivor parents.

“So many people have said to me, ‘That’s exactly how I grew up, no one has ever described it before,'” she said. “They all had crazy lives and he was able to write about his crazy parents and their crazy childhood and he was able to do it with such humor and such love.”

A portrait of writer Amir Gutfreund from 2005 (Moshe Shai/Flash 90)
A portrait of writer Amir Gutfreund from 2005 (Moshe Shai/Flash 90)

Born to Holocaust survivor parents in Haifa, Gutfreund studied mathematics at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology and lived in a small village in the northern Galilee with his first wife, Neta, and their three children. She died nearly three years ago, in 2011, and Gutfreund had since remarried his second wife, and together were raising five children.

Harris remembered first meeting Gutfreund at her office in Jerusalem in the late 1990s, when he showed up in his air force uniform.

“He told me he would sit in meetings at headquarters and sit in the back and write fiction, and I thought, ‘This guy cannot be serious,'” she recalled.

Gutfreund, who published his first book at 39, went on to write five other books, “Seaside Estates,” “The World, a Moment Later,” “Heroes Fly to Her,” A Mercenary and Winter Buds” and “The Legend of Bruno and Adella.”

His first book, “Our Holocaust,” was his most widely translated novel; “The World, a Moment Later” was translated into English and French and “Heroes Fly to Her,” his most recent book, was translated into French and adapted by filmmaker Avi Nesher for his film, “The Matchmaker.”

Jessica Cohen, Gutfreund’s English translator, said she first came across his first book, “Our Holocaust” while browsing in an Israeli bookstore.

“I thought it was incredible,” said Cohen. “Even ten years ago there was a feeling of what could you possibly read about the Holocaust that hadn’t been written, but his was really, really different.”

Having a sense of humor about the Holocaust was still taboo at the time, added Cohen, and she fell in love with the book.

It wasn’t an easy translation job, said Cohen, who has also translated books by David Grossman, Tom Segev and Ronit Matalon.

“It’s a very difficult book to translate because of the child’s narrative and the other voices,” she said. “Amir did a lot of research and had historical figures and scenes in the camps. He was quite involved and there was a lot of back and forth. I still have hundreds of emails between he and I.”

She also remembered her first meeting with Gutfreund, when he showed up at a cafe in his uniform.

“I was a bit taken aback,” she said. “He does not fit the mold at all. He wasn’t in the little incestuous clique of Tel Aviv writers, and he didn’t want to be. His writing was a part of him. It wasn’t what he got up to do every day, but he felt compelled to do it.”

Gutfreund was eager to have his book translated into English, and opinionated about the translation, she said.

When the English translation of “Our Holocaust” was published, Gutfreund was shortlisted for the prestigious Sami Rohr literary prize.

Harris said that when Gutfreund won the Sapir Prize for Literature in 2003, he “gave a big chunk of money” to foreign workers in Israel.

“That’s the kind of person he was,” she said.

Gutfreund liked people, added Cohen, calling him a “genuine, caring man. No matter what he was going through, he wanted to know how we were,” she remembered.

Gutfreund was racing to finish his final book, “Mountain of Happiness,” before he died, said Harris.

She sighed, remembering her last conversation with him a little more than a month ago.

“This is a real literary and personal challenge and we’re going to do it,” she said. “We’re so committed to keeping him alive through his books.”

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