The flight from Nazi Germany was his salvation, the return to Germany determined his literary life. In 1938, when the poet Elazar Benyoetz was just one year old, his parents fled with him from Austria to what was then Palestine. In the early 1960s, Benyoetz went to Germany – at a time when there were no diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel.
In Israel, Elazar Benyoetz was, he says, “violently attacked” for this. The survivor who wanted to work in Germany, in the land of the Shoah… “After crossing the German border I no longer had a congregation; after switching to German there was no prospect of representation,” he recalls. But for him, as he tells Deutsche Welle, it was a threefold journey: “to Germany, to German, to Mendelssohn,” that important philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn.
Great research work
The young Benyoetz initiated an enormous scientific research project in Germany, which was intended to process the Jewish contribution to German intellectual and contemporary history up to the present. Today, this work by many people is available in 21 volumes under the title “Bibliographia Judaica” and lists all Jewish authors who have ever published anything in German.
When Benyoetz began work on the extensive archive, the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno credited the project as an “important and productive” plan. Until 1968, Benyoetz mostly lived and researched in Berlin. For him, the city is “Moses Mendelssohn and the place of my transformation”.
Since the late 1960s, the author, who has won multiple awards and is highly regarded by German scholars, has been living in Israel again – but Benyoetz, who will be 85 on March 24, has been writing almost exclusively in German for almost 60 years.
The books of the emigrants
Benyoetz’ CV has its own twists and turns. Because the son of a Jewish family, born in Wiener Neustadt under the name Paul Kloppel, grew up in what was then Palestine with modern Hebrew as his mother tongue. He later chose the Hebrew art and stage name Elazar Benyoëtz. This means literally: “God gave” (Elazar) and “son of the counselor” (Ben-Yoëtz). He published his first volumes of poetry in Hebrew. He later acquired the German language by buying and reading books by emigrants.
Occasionally Benyoetz describes a moment that shaped him: his encounter as a small boy with Else Lasker-Schüler, the great, wild German poetess, born in Wuppertal in 1869, who fled Germany and died in poverty in January 1945 in Jerusalem. An encounter “as if she found me worthy of being her playmate; she put her hand on my head and said, ‘Little Joseph.'”
“When I set out towards my German fate at the end of 1962, as determined as I was clueless, I only knew about two things: I was a poet and a Jew – in that order, because I was already obsessed with poetry at the age of twelve,” says Benyoetz in an interview with DW. “My first poem was printed when I was twelve, it had to be read, so it was clear that I had to become a poet, not a Jew. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t become what you might already be.” And: “Germany whipped the Jew [in mir] up and up, the German language cut me off from my sources, I had to get to the bottom of it to gain ground. It wasn’t sound ground; it was a hard walk to the bottom.”
To this day, the elderly gentleman with the white beard, the observant look and the alert mind has more readers in Germany than in Israel. His wife, who works as a calligrapher and illustrator under the stage name Metavel, is almost better known there than he is because of the design of some popular children’s books.
Benyoetz is an award-winning master of aphorism, that short, philosophical motto that says a lot with just a few words. They are his life: poetry, witty, unruly, stimulating, insightful, mysterious, profound. It’s the art of language. Benyoetz’s quiet aphorisms, which resonate for a long time, are perhaps the appropriate literary form in times of loud, roaring media language excess. Even in the current world situation. “Wars are post-war failures,” he writes. In fact, “there are only war and post-war times”.
The writer now lives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In both places, his living room contains one of the increasingly rare treasure chambers of the emigrant generation, filled to the ceiling with the classics of German-language literature. As early as 1959, Benyoetz passed the rabbi’s examination without later working as a rabbi. This rabbinical character is more noticeable in his recently published works than in the works of his early years. “You can do without God, you cannot give him up. The task is at the end,” it says at one point.
Benyoetz is a regular guest at readings in Germany, again at the end of May 2022. His literature is becoming more present in the German-speaking world. Since 2017, the publishing house “Königshausen & Neumann” has enthusiastically taken on Benyoetz’s work and has now reissued around ten works, new works and publications that were no longer available on the market. In 2021 alone, “Finding makes searching easier”, “The future is breathing down our necks” and “Fazittert. Eine Spätlesung” were published.
German in Israel
Benyoetz also sees a reception of German-language literature in Israel today. “In Israel little or hardly any German is spoken, let alone written, but a good deal of German is learned and a good deal translated from German,” he told DW. Moses Mendelssohn – he calls him his “grandfather” – has been “spoken and printed more and more” for the last few decades.
Actually, say some experts in the industry, the now 85-year-old author would be a worthy candidate for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. After all, he gave and gives so much back to the German language. “This German,” he says himself, “is mastered by an Israeli, it has its address and its name: Jerusalem German.”