Obituary: Simha Sneh

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The Independent Culture
SIMHA SNEH was Argentina's last novelist and journalist in Yiddish. Two weeks before he died, he had started on his last article on his ancient portable typewriter. He wanted to explain the meaning of Pesaj ("Passover") to Argentines.

Sneh was one of the survivors of the 20th century. His life was filled with rich experience and narrow escapes. Only a few months before his death he presented his wife with a birth certificate to show that he was 90, and not 84 as she had believed. He had forged the younger man's documents after deserting the Soviet army in 1943 to join the British army a few months later.

From the village in Pulawy, and life in pre-war Poland as a student and factory worker, he was called up by the Polish army as war loomed. After the German invasion he fled to the Soviet army. In 1944 he joined the British army, with which he went to Palestine, Italy, Belgium and Holland.

In 1947 he was discharged to find he was alone in the world, with no family or country to go back to. He decided to emigrate to Argentina simply because an English soldier had remarked that it was the furthest place from Europe. When Sneh went to the Argentine Consulate in London he was rudely discouraged: "The woman said there was no more room for Jews in Argentina." He flew to Brazil, then to Paraguay, and took the river boat to Argentina's second port, Rosario, where he landed with false papers.

Sneh described himself as a Yiddish writer in Spanish and Yiddish. In his eighties he translated and published in Spanish six volumes of autobiography and several volumes of short stories, one of which, Bread and Blood (1977), received several awards; it had been first published in Yiddish.

He had started to write in Yiddish at the end of the Second World War for a magazine in London, where his first book was published by Narod Press. Before reaching Argentina he had begun to write for the local Yiddish newspaper, Die Presse, as a correspondent. In 1949 he started work in the paper's newsroom in Buenos Aires and remained there until 1951.

It was possible then to make a reasonable living out of journalism in Yiddish as there were several newspapers (Di Iddischen Titren, Der Vek, Modern Zerteg) which over the years disappeared. In 1961 he started the bilingual (Spanish and Yiddish) magazine Aleph, which published the leading Argentine Jewish authors of the time.

Sneh's greatest achievement, however, was the magazine Raices ("Roots"), launched in October 1968, which, until it closed in 1972, was regarded as one of the best in the Argentine press by the likes of authors such as Gabriel Garca Mrquez. At Raices Sneh clashed with the late Isaac Bashevis Singer, the 1979 Nobel prizewinner, who came to Argentina in 1970 curious about the local Jewish character.

The result was the story "The Colony," later included in A Friend of Kafka and other stories (1980). "Like all big writers he had his smallness," Sneh said once. "Singer arrived in a country where he had been told there were many Yiddish-speakers. He must have thought that they had all read him or at least knew of him. But only a few knew his books and he was offended. So he wrote an unkind story about the local Jews and the neglect of their traditions."

However, Sneh was himself concerned about this and demanded of his own contributors that they become involved in giving Jewishness in Argentina a strong profile. The community was about 300,000 strong, in a country whose population was 23 million. The end of Raices, as Argentina declined into the chaos of the Seventies, forced Sneh and his wife, Bejla, and their three children, to live in Israel. They returned to Buenos Aires after about two years.

Until shortly before his death Sneh wrote in Spanish for the Yiddish community paper, Mundo Israelita. His reputation as a survivor did not stem only from his life in war-torn Europe. In July 1994, he narrowly escaped death in the terrorist bombing of the Jewish community welfare association (Amia).

A metal shard lodged in his head and doctors decided, because of his age, that they would not operate. "I was leaning over my typewriter when I felt a stab of pain in my head and a shattering noise. I knew it was a bomb. I ran, somebody grabbed me and I fainted." Eighty-six people died in that bombing, which shocked Argentina because people thought that that did not happen there any more.

Sneh's timing had been better on the previous occasion, when terrorists demolished the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires on 17 March 1992. He had left an embassy news briefing half an hour before the bomb exploded. Twenty- nine people were killed that afternoon.

Simha Sneh, writer and journalist: born Pulawy, Poland 15 October 1908; married 1948 Bejla Bialy (one son, two daughters); died Buenos Aires 4 April 1999.