Ephraim Kishon

Concentration camp survivor who became a writer of satirical novels
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The Independent Online

"I was born in Hungary in 1924, and reborn in 1949, in Israel," was Ephraim Kishon's own summary of his life, which in fact saw many more rebirths and incarnations, most famously as a writer of satirical novels, which sold 43 million copies in 37 languages. His Sefer Mishpahti ("Family Stories", 1980) was the most widely sold Hebrew book after the Bible.

Ferenc Hoffmann (Ephraim Kishon), writer: born Budapest 23 August 1924; married first Chava Klamer (one son; marriage dissolved), second Sara Lipowitz (deceased; one son, one daughter), third Lisa Witasek; died Appenzell, Switzerland 29 January 2005.

"I was born in Hungary in 1924, and reborn in 1949, in Israel," was Ephraim Kishon's own summary of his life, which in fact saw many more rebirths and incarnations, most famously as a writer of satirical novels, which sold 43 million copies in 37 languages. His Sefer Mishpahti ("Family Stories", 1980) was the most widely sold Hebrew book after the Bible.

He was born Ferenc Hoffmann into an assimilated Jewish family in Budapest in 1924, his youth overshadowed by the Nazi occupation. Although he finished school with top marks in 1941, the newly introduced racial laws of Hungary's Horty regime, modelled on Germany's infamous Nuremberg laws, made it impossible for the young man to study and instead he began an apprenticeship as a goldsmith.

In 1944, all Hungarian Jewish men were interned in forced labour camps. For Hoffmann, it was the beginning of an Odyssey through labour and concentration camps which he survived as if by a miracle. In one camp, a soldier made the prisoners line up and shot 10 men around Hoffmann, sparing him. "He made a mistake in letting a satirist live," he would comment later. In another camp, he was saved from certain death by the fact that the camp commander liked to play chess and Hoffmann was an excellent player.

Finally, already on a transport to the Sobibor extermination camp, he managed to flee at the Polish border and hid under the guise of being a Slovakian labourer with the name Stanko Andras. Having survived the war, the 21-year-old Hoffmann found that his parents and one sister were the only survivors of his extended family of 20 people.

In the new, Communist Hungary, Hoffmann soon found that the new regime was only marginally better than the pre-war government. He finally fled Hungary, arriving in a refugee ship at the shores of the newly founded state of Israel in 1949. At Haifa harbour, the young man, who had already changed his last name after the war, was summarily renamed Ephraim by a customs officer.

In Israel, the young Ephraim Kishon at first wrote for a Hungarian newspaper, Uj Kelet, while learning Hebrew. He moved to Kibbutz Kfar Hachores near Nazareth, where he worked as an electrician, agricultural worker, horse hand, latrine cleaner, and finally as a locksmith in his own workshop. After only two years, Kishon had mastered Hebrew sufficiently well to write a daily column for the national newspaper Maariv, an occupation which he would continue for the next 30 years.

In 1959, having divorced his first wife, Chava, Kishon married the Juilliard-trained pianist Sara Lipowitz, who was to achieve a certain, tenderly ironic literary fame of her own through his stories as "the best wife in the world" (after her death, he married Lisa Witasek). During the same year, his collection of stories Look Back Mrs Lot! became a New York Times "Book of the Month". Kishon was on his way to becoming an international author, writing a stream of satirical novels, stories, plays and films.

It is a particular irony that Kishon's satirical stories and novels enjoyed most success in Germany, where he soon became a household name. Kishon took it in his stride that his phenomenal success never really took off in the English-speaking world but that he became the purveyor of humour to the German economic miracle: "It is a great satisfaction for me to see the grandchildren of my executioners queue up at all my readings," he commented.

A fervent Zionist, Kishon felt increasingly isolated by an artistic establishment which, he believed, refused him the recognition that was his due. His bitterness was one of the factors behind his decision to spend much of his time at his house in the rural Swiss canton of Appenzell. In later life, Kishon also became known for his conservative views. He polemicised extensively against the modern art establishment and in favour of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.

"I am no writer, I'm a humorist," Kishon once said. "One becomes a writer only after one's death."

Philipp Blom



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