Sitting at a session of the international symposium to combat global anti-Semitism, organized by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I felt – rather than heard – a hum.
My cellphone was vibrating in my pocket. Ordinarily, I power down during meetings and conferences. But here, in Jerusalem, it seemed like an affront to the national ethos to turn off my cellphone for any reason at all.
As surreptitiously as possible, I glanced at the display: 4:03 p.m. It was my brother calling from Be’er Sheva. At the first opportunity, I stepped into a corridor to return the call.
His voice came through, excited. “Ida Fink won Pras Yisrael! They announced it on the news at four. I knew you’d want to know right away.”
Pras Yisrael – the Israel Prize – is an award conferred by the Israeli government to honour excellence and lifetime achievement in a rotating set of fields. The most prestigious award in the country, Pras Yisrael was established in 1953 and is awarded annually. The award is announced some time before Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, and conferred on that day in Jerusalem in the presence of the president, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the Knesset. This year – Israel’s 60th – Ida Fink was selected to receive the Israel Prize for literature, in recognition of the excellence and significance of her work, joining the ranks of such luminaries as Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Aharon Appelfeld, and Leah Goldberg,
Readers of this column who are familiar with Fink’s subtle and luminous writing are nodding in approval. My students at York University are gripped by her work, particularly her stunning collection of short stories, A Scrap of Time, finding it powerful and profound.
I phoned her immediately to congratulate her. I had been sipping coffee with her at her Ramat Aviv apartment only a few days earlier. She had no inking then that she was up for this important honour. She learned of it a mere two hours before my brother heard it broadcast on the radio.
Fink was born in Zbaraz, Poland, in 1921 to an educated, professional family that was well-integrated into Polish culture. At the time the Nazis invaded Poland in September, 1939, Fink was 18 years old, preparing for a career as a pianist and studying literature and music.
Her studies were abruptly terminated, and the family was soon confined to the Zbaraz Ghetto. In 1942, she and her younger sister acquired false identity papers and left the ghetto. A fair-haired, blue-eyed young woman, Fink did not look identifiably Jewish. The two sisters survived the war by concealing their identities. Fink’s novel, The Journey, is a fictionalized account of the war years.
After the war, Fink married, and in 1957, she moved to Israel with her husband and daughter, setting up a home in Holon. She knew not a word of Hebrew. At the age of 36, she began to learn the aleph bet.
She worked for at Yad Vashem recording the testimonies of other Holocaust survivors. At home, she began to craft short stories about wartime experiences and their aftermath. Her stories capture the daily details of life and death under the threat of genocide, as well as the interplay of memory, bereavement and trauma. Her speciality is the very short story – slivers of remembrance, some as brief as three pages – that focus on moments of revelation and moments of radical change.
Early on, publishers rejected her stories, telling her that her writing was too subdued for her subject. Fink persisted, developing a voice that was subtle yet powerful and haunting.
When her first collection of stories was published in the 1980s, it earned high praise from reviewers, and she has gone on to receive many prestigious international awards, including the first Anne Frank Prize for Literature, the Moravia Prize, the Yad Vashem Prize, and now, Pras Yisrael. At 87, she is in frail health, so the prize is timely.
I have known Fink since the early 1990s and have the pleasure and honour of considering her a friend and mentor. If you have yet to read her stories, let this award prompt you to do so now.