Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Agnon Literary Center

Today—some reflections on periphery and center, the province and global culture, and a literary legacy interrupted, lost, and re-imagined.

Buchach is a charming town of some twelve thousand people. It is nestled along a river among picturesque forests of the southern Ternopil region of western Ukraine. As with many small towns, the atmosphere is placid. And many residents may not know every aspect of their local heritage.

A new initiative with the launch of the Agnon Literary Center explores this heritage. The energetic young arts activist Mariana Maksymiak set out to return to Buchach an important aspect of its literary identity. She organized weekly events at an informal art space that attracted a growing local audience. These cultural initiatives are still rare in the smaller towns of Ukraine. And she turned to restoring a link between contemporary Buchach and a literary legend.

[Makysmiak English-language audio clip.]

Who was Agnon? First, some history. During the Habsburg Empire Buchach developed into an important county center and had a Jewish majority until 1914. The town was ruined by the First World War but still had a substantial Jewish presence until the 1940s.

Several prominent Jews were born in Buchach, among them the renowned Israeli writer and Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Born in 1888, Agnon was raised in a mixed cultural atmosphere. Yiddish was the language of the house and Hebrew the language of the Bible and the Talmud he studied.

Agnon began writing Yiddish and Hebrew poems in childhood and was getting published by the time he was a teenager. He then turned to short stories and novels, written initially in Yiddish. They documented the shtetl world of his youth and a traditional way of life that would not last.

Agnon left Buchach in 1907 and emigrated to Palestine. There he embraced a more secular lifestyle as well as Zionism, and wrote in Hebrew. Buchach and Galicia however had a place in his literary work for the rest of his life.

This is shown by his novel A Guest for the Night, hailed by the Nobel committee as his greatest achievement. The novel is based on a visit Agnon made in 1930 to Buchach. He was deeply affected by the troubled landscape of the Jewish community in the town in the aftermath of a devastating war, a war that would be overshadowed by later events.

The novel was released in September 1939, the very month Nazi Germany invaded Poland, an eerie premonition of the catastrophes to come.

In 1966, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Academy was impressed by, as they stated, “his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people”. Agnon was the first Hebrew-language writer to win the award.

Mariana Maksymiak points out that for contemporary Buchach “the war, forgotten people, lost streets—this all exists around us even if it is ruined.”

[Ukrainian language audio clip]

With her center, she says, “We want to return Agnon’s memory to the literary map of Ukraine. We want to do translation projects into Ukrainian and other literary events and presentations.”

Maksymiak’s work is slowly taking on a wider resonance. Buchach and the Center have recently been included in the international Shtetl Routes program launched in neighboring Poland.

Hillel Seidman, an admirer of Agnon’s from Buchach, called the writer a “literary archivist of the destroyed civilization of Galician Jews, their traditions and creativeness, all framed in undisturbed piety and simple faith.”

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Agnon remarked: “I was five years old when I wrote my first song. After that I made many songs, but nothing has remained of them all. My father’s house, where I left a roomful of writings, was burned down in the First World War and all I had left there was burned with it.”

This has been Ukrainian Jewish Heritage on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. From San Francisco, I’m Peter Bejger. Until next time, shalom!

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