Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes(1887-1970), a rabbi’s son, learned Hebrew texts from his father and European literature from his mother. In 1908 the family emigrated to Israel, but as soon as he could leave his parents’ Jaffa home, he pursued his studies in Germany in 1912. Germany was where Shmuel Yosef laid eyes on Esther Marx, argued with her father about whether a writer could make a reliable and supportive husband, married her anyhow and had two children. And Germany was where the would-be author had his first book published.
Agnon House Museum, Jerusalem
Devastated by the loss of his own writings and by the destruction to his library, Agnon decided to return to Jerusalem alone, intending to bring his family along at some stage in the future. Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes was a difficult name to carry around, so when he returned to live in Israel in 1924, he changed it to the much simpler and more literary Shai Agnon. I bet Mrs Esther Czaczkes was surprised to hear her beloved husband answering to a totally new name.
Agnon's library was hit for a second time when his Jerusalem house was destroyed during the appalling Arab riots of 1929. For a writer to lose his library, twice, would be like a painter to lose his eyes or a surgeon to lose his fingers. So Agnon had no choice but to build a new house.
Agnon's upstairs study and library
I don’t suppose Agnon was an easy husband or a supportive father to his wife and children. Linda Gradstein described a man who lived a modest, religious life and insisted his family did too. The author tolerated just four folding chairs for visitors, no hot water for showers, no meat and no access to the one big library room upstairs to anyone other than the great man himself.
Even when Schocken was Aryanised by the Germans in 1939, Agnon got lucky. The publishing house moved to Israel under the same name and continued the role it had played in Germany. We can identify the following books as Agnon’s novels, all published of course by Schocken: The Bridal Canopy, 1932; A Simple Story, 1935; A Guest for the Night, 1939; Only Yesterday, 1946; Shira, 1971 and In Mr. Lublin's Store, 1974. He also wrote books of short stories, collected letters, novellas and non-fiction.
Throughout his career, Agnon was recognised by his literary peers. He was twice awarded the Bialik Prize for literature (1934, 1950). And he won the prestigious Israel Prize for literature, twice (1954, 1958). However the peak of Agnon's literary life was winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. In fact he shared it with the wonderful German Jewish writer Nelly Sachs (1891-1970).
Shai Agnon, after winning the Nobel Prize
Visitors and students can now inspect archival photographs, documents, recordings made by the writer, letters, manuscripts and copies of special editions of his works. Older citizens like myself can review the published material while enjoying coffee and cake on the typical Bauhaus roof terrace. Bliss.
Despite Agnon’s themes being clearly Jewish, there was also something universally appealing about them. His works have been translated into just about every language under the sun, including for societies who would never have seen a Galician-Ukranian-Israeli-German in their midst.