Shmuel Yossef Czaczkes was born in 1888 in the Jewish town of Buczacz in Eastern Galicia. His father, Mordehai Czaczkes, a fur merchant and a scholar, open to all prevailing streams of orthodox Jewish thought and even to the moderate Enlightenment, introduced his son to traditional Jewish culture. His mother was an enlightened Jew and familiarized him with European literature and culture.
Shmuel Yossef began writing in his youth. He once remarked, “I wrote a poem or a story on every piece of paper that I could find”. He published his first poem at the age of 16, and from then on, did not stop writing stories and poems in Hebrew and Yiddish.
At the age of 19, he went to Eretz Israel and settled in Jaffa where he became close to the new immigrants of the pioneer movement.
“Forsaken Wives”, his first story published in Eretz Israel, was enthusiastically received. Following its publication, Czaczkes adopted the pseudonym of Agnon based on its Hebrew title “Agunot “.
In 1913, Agnon went to Germany, where he married his wife Esther Marx, who came from an established family. During this period, he met Salman Schocken who later became his publisher. In 1924, Agnon’s house in Hamburg was burnt down, destroying his extensive library and manuscript collection . Then he returned to Eretz Israel and settled in Jerusalem, where he resumed his religious way of life. He continued to write until his death in 1970.
In 1966, Agnon was the first Hebrew writer to receive the Nobel Prize “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people.”
At the award ceremony, Agnon observed: “Due to a historical catastrophe… I was born in a town in the Diaspora… But I always felt that I was born in Jerusalem. I dreamed I was standing among the Levites in the Temple, singing the psalms of David, King of Israel”.
Agnon wrote six major novels portraying Jewish life in Galicia, Germany and Israel.
“The bridal Canopy”: An epic depicting 19th century Galician Jewry as seen through the eyes of a chassid, Reb Yudel.
“A single Story”: A love story set against the backdrop of Jewish life in Buczacz at the turn of the century.
“A Guest for the Night”: the story of the decline of Jewish life in the towns of Poland. (There are those who claim that, in this book, Agnon foresaw the coming of the Holocaust.
“Only Yesterday”: A book filled with color and shadows on the pioneers’ period in the Turkish Palestine.
“Shira”: magical images of Jerusalem during the 1940’s.
“In the Store of Mr. Lublin“: Life in Germany during World War I.
In the course of his life, Agnon published eight volumes of novels, novellas and short stories. Eight additional volumes were published posthumously.
Agnon’s writing has its own original and unique style – a wonderful blend of the language of the Mishna, medieval and chassidic literature and modern Hebrew.
Agnon was a master storyteller with a keen, and, at times, deadly, eye. His stories are gripping, surprising and shocking with a grotesque kind of humor – laughter mixed with tears. In his tales, it is often difficult to distinguish between reality and illusion, particularly in his work of fantasy “The Book of Deeds“.
In a speech before the Nobel Prize ceremony, Agnon declared: “Who were my teachers of poetry and literature? Who inspired me? Every man, woman and child whom I have ever met, both Jew and non-Jew; conversations with people, the stories of their lives engraved in my heart and flow from my pen”.
Nelly Sachs was born in Berlin in 1891. Together with her mother, she managed to flee Nazi Germany to Sweden before the Second World War. The rest of her family perished in the German concentration camps.
In 1966, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel prize in literature, together with Shmuel-Yosef Agnon, “For her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength.”
Nelly Sachs died in Stockholm in 1970.