Hromadske Radio: A Nobel Laureate Returns to Ukraine -- Agnon

Buchach is the homeland of the Nobel Laureate writer Agnon. In this program we talk about the Agnon Literature Center that aims to “put Buchach on the literary map of the world.”

Shmuel Yosef Agnon is the first Hebrew- and Yiddish-speaking writer who won the Nobel Prize. The writer was born in Buchach in the Ternopil region and emigrated to Palestine in 1907. In July 2015, the Agnon Literary Center was opened in Buchach. We are talking with Mariana Maksymiak, the program director of the Agnon Literary Center, in the Hromadske Radio studio. The focus of our talk is Agnon, his texts, and the work of the Center, which structures the city’s community around itself.

Mariana Maksymiak
Mariana Maksymiak


Iryna Slavinska: You are listening to Hromadske Radio. This is the program “Encounters” and Iryna Slavinska is in the studio. Together with you we continue to explore the broadest spectrum of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Today our spectrum brings us to the topic of literature first of all, and geographically it brings us to the city of Buchach in Western Ukraine. Mariana Maksymiak, the program director of the Agnon Literature Center in Buchach, will explain to us what it has to do with our topic today. Good afternoon.

Mariana Maksymiak: Good afternoon Iryna.

Iryna Slavinska: There are all these new words: Agnon, Buchach. Agnon is a writer, Buchach is a city. What connects them?

Mariana Maksymiak: First of all, the connection is that Agnon was born in Buchach. Being a Nobel Laureate in literature, he actually comes from Buchach. This is a very interesting fact because he is the only Nobel Laureate who was born on the territory of modern Ukraine.

Iryna Slavinska: Now there are two of them. There is also Svetlana Alexievich. [Born in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, resides in Belarus. Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature 2015, editor’s note]

Mariana Maksymiak: Yes, now there are two, but just until recently there was one, and this one person was partially forgotten and abandoned. He was somehow marginalized. The residents of the city of Buchach knew Agnon was once among them. We have a street named for Agnon and there is a plaque on the house where he was born.

However, it was impossible to return him to Ukraine even when talking about this literary heritage because there were no Ukrainian translations. Folio only two years ago published a translation from the English of his Ukrainian novel A Guest for the Night. It was the first appearance by Agnon on the Ukrainian book market.

Iryna Slavinska: I think we need to step back a little and maybe talk about Agnon as a figure for those who are not very well informed about Israeli literature, and him as a writer…it is complicated to explain why he became a Nobel Laureate, but perhaps what we hear about him will help us understand who he was.

Mariana Maksymiak: Well, as a matter of fact, Agnon wrote quite voluminous prose. He wrote novels that depicted the traditions of Jewish life in the new city, in Galicia. He received the Nobel Prize for his skill in writing about this theme. He got the Nobel Prize not for one novel, but for a collection of his works among which is A Guest for the Night.

This novel describes Buchach and the period between the wars. It was Agnon’s real return after the First World War to Buchach in the 1930’s, where he lived approximately for half a year. He described what he saw there. This is a very interesting novel from the historical point of view because he unveils the city in a new manner. This is a very interesting novel today as you see a city that does not exist anymore and you see a community and the life of a Jewish community that also does not exist anymore. Buchach does not now have any Jewish community and does not have any synagogue. Only the cemetery remains, which is very interesting. Agnon’s father is buried there, and he recalls him in this book as well.

Iryna Slavinska: It thus turns out that Agnon is interesting as a writer-archeologist or writer-anthropologist? What is his value?

Mariana Maksymiak: No, I think his value lies in his works where he depicts the world of a Galician Atlantis that no longer exists. He worked very well with the text and with Hebrew in particular. It is hard for me to talk about this professionally because I am not a translator and I do not know Hebrew. I know perhaps some on a basic level, but this is not enough for evaluation. I was talking to some translators who were ready to work with Agnon’s texts, and all of them were saying that his texts are very complex semantically. This text is very difficult to translate well because it contains a great variety of complex synonyms and he describes everything in a very interesting manner. It was the first time in Nobel Prize practice that a work that was written in Hebrew got such an appraisal. This is recognition of the language on the global level.

Iryna Slavinska: To what countries of the world do Agnon’s literature and texts belong? This is, of course, a very naïve question because it is impossible to divide all the prominent figures of literature and culture by countries. This is like dividing Marc Chagall among Belarus, France, and the United States. However, there is a certain rule in identifying writers by some culture. Where is Agnon?

Mariana Maksymiak: This is a very interesting question, and I will start with the fact that yesterday we had a presentation here in Kyiv in the literature center and an interesting group of people showed up. There were people from the Jewish community. One person came up to me and said: “I will tell you my thoughts about Agnon. He is…” And now a very interesting moment: “He is Ukrainian!” For me it was such an interesting discovery. I always thought that he was…I mean he wrote about a topic that was not foreign to Ukrainians, but it was different, because his themes were on very traditional Orthodox Jewish life.

Iryna Slavinska: At the same time, here we probably should take into consideration that a lot of Jewish people lived in Ukrainian cities, and there were very many shtetls and small communities in Ukraine. All of them vanished in the Holocaust. This component was not there anymore, and besides one would not like to call this topic or space foreign to Ukraine.

Mariana Maksymiak: Yes, of course. For me this was an indication of the fact that we gave our center Agnon’s name not because we want to do Jewish cultural projects exclusively. On the contrary, we would like to present some quality literary projects for the residents of this city. We would like people to understand the city has its literary identity and to place the city back on the literary map of Ukraine and the world. This is the city where Agnon was born. He brought this city to the world with him. He brought it to Israel and preserved it there. Even living in Palestine and later in Jerusalem, he often remembered Buchach and talked very warmly about it. Therefore yes, it is difficult to divide him into different countries, but I think that he has a very strong connection to Ukraine.

Iryna Slavinska: Does Ukraine have this connection to Agnon?

Mariana Maksymiak: I hope that it will. Perhaps it is a weak connection now.

Iryna Slavinska: Are there any reasons to be optimistic? We already know that there is at least one literary center named for Agnon in Buchach. We will talk about it in more detail in the second part of our program. But if we look at some other things, like the translations, the conferences, or the reaction of Ukrainian philologists, can we say that Agnon, as a subject of Ukrainian research, is present here? Perhaps he is known by readers?

Mariana Maksymiak: Perhaps not yet because when we presented this novel in Buchach two years ago, and later I was trying to talk about it in Lviv (because I live in two cities—Buchach and Lviv), it was for a very limited group of people. It is a pity because those were people who work in Judaica, study it, or are really interested in literature in a professional manner. If we are going to talk about this in this way then yes, we know who Agnon is and we know what he was writing about. He is not known to the broader audience.

Iryna Slavinska: How did that happen?

Mariana Maksymiak: I ask this question myself many times and it is hard to find the answer. Maybe this happens because the problem of talking about the Jewish heritage exists not only in a small city but also throughout Ukraine. We do not know what we have and what we should do with it, how we should present it, remember it, and preserve it. I think this is the problem.

For me the indication is that there was no street named for Agnon before Ukraine became independent. This street had some other name, and when…

Iryna Slavinska: Who named the street for Agnon?

Mariana Maksymiak: It was named by the mayor’s office because there was a need to celebrate the anniversary of Agnon, and I think it was 1988…

Iryna Slavinska: I was also thinking that it was a bit strange that they remembered the anniversary. I mean these things are usually not noticed.

Mariana Maksymiak: This was around the beginning of independence if we are measuring in years. Then the idea to give the street the name of Agnon appeared somewhere in the town hall, because there was the need to identify the past inhabitants of Buchach. Agnon’s daughter then came to Buchach for the first time. She went to the cemetery and found the grave of her relatives. Those were very interesting moments, and they are somewhere on film. Recently I watched a film in Hebrew and it is on YouTube. Obviously, I did not understand anything there because I do not know that language, but I saw the scenes filmed in Buchach at the beginning of 1990’s. Those were very interesting moments because the moments when you come back to the places where Agnon and your relatives lived are very dear and sensitive.

Then again, later, in 2008, his granddaughter visited Buchach. It was very nice. A new plaque was dedicated where it stands now, and those were interesting moments. The city council and the mayor had contacts with Agnon’s daughter, who unfortunately is now deceased, and have contacts with the granddaughter—people who are connected to Agnon’s family somehow.

But I reality it does not work as it should and more can be done.

Iryna Slavinska: We are talking about the return of Agnon as a writer to Ukraine, and to his native city of Buchach in particular. The program director of this Literary Center Mariana Maksymiak is in the studio for the program “Encounters.”

I would like to talk about the Agnon Literary Center in Buchach. It was established not long ago, only in July of 2015. So it has existed for just several months. However, taking into consideration the experience of Hromadske Radio, we know it is possible to do a lot in several months, and four months for a start-up is a big step for its development.

Thus, I would like to ask Mariana to talk about this project. When did it start? What are its aims? What is the Agnon Literary Center in Buchach doing?

Mariana Maksymiak: Well, it all started from another project. There is one preserved courtyard off the street named for Agnon. The memorial plaque is nearby, because Agnon was born on that street in one of the houses there. This is a very interesting moment because this courtyard is very attractive and nice, and the inhabitants of the surrounding houses had a plan to make some sort of art platform there. They wanted to have some alternative to what the House of Culture offers…we started this project in 2012, and opened it in May. This courtyard was in bad condition, and we made it nicer. We have made a very interesting space out of it over these three years.

This is a summer project and it runs from May until the end of September. Every Sunday the city residents come there to listen to various cultural projects. This can be a book presentation; a meeting with an author, a dance master-class, a film screening, and an exhibition space…in general there are very many projects.

When we started, I created some literary events for these events, and invited many writers. These included Taras Prohasko, Halyna Vdovychenko, Svyatoslav Pomerantsev from Meridian Czernowitz, and Vasyl Makhno. We have had many guests already. In talking with the writers, I understood that Buchach needs some separate institution that would be in charge of the things connected to literature. The art courtyard is a very broad notion; it is a very broad concept that can include many different events. This year we talked with Vasyl Makhno when he visited Buchach in May. He said that it would be a great idea to create some literary project separately, perhaps some residence or something. This pushed us to say: OK, let’s do something like that. On July 17, on Agnon’s birthday, we created this center. We made it in the courtyard because it is a wonderful space, and people always come there. Every Sunday we have around 50-100 people attend. This is a good sign for me because Buchach is a tiny city, even though it is a regional center. It has 12,000 inhabitants, and people are ready to talk about such topics as Jewish heritage, Agnon, literary presentations, literature and the city.

This is an interesting phenomenon. We developed an audience that is ready to attend these events.

Iryna Slavinska: This, by the way, anticipates my next question that I wanted to ask in this same context. Buchach is a regional center, isn’t it?

Mariana Maksymiak: Indeed.

Iryna Slavinska: When we think about literary institutions, festivals, or literary centers, big projects such as residences that we do not have, but we could have, then we think about the bigger cities. Until recently it could be only Kyiv, and perhaps Lviv. Now there are more of these cities, but they are still in any event regional centers. This is the result of Ukrainian centralization politics in culture. It should not be like that. When I first read about the formation of this art courtyard, about its existence in Buchach, and about the fact that it is turning into some literature center to some extent, I thought this was very healthy process, and that the smaller cities can start to become actors in this sphere.

Thus, I have a question about the community. Obviously, these things work badly if only one activist or enthusiast is working on them, and when the city community does not provide any feedback and does not participate in the process. How was this audience created? It is not done by itself. I do not believe that there were 100 people who were interested in literature in Buchach. You still had to attract them somehow.

Mariana Maksymiak: It all started with a person whose name is Victor Hrebenyovskyi, and he established the art courtyard. He is a person from a very intellectual circle of the city, I would say perhaps more from the artistic milieu as he is a director and musician. Generally speaking, we have a good group of schoolteachers of music there, and they are doing their job very well. These people are always ready to play music outside of the classrooms and the houses of culture. They said: “Okay, if there is the space, we will come and play the classics, jazz, and we will try something.” Thus, it all started from the music projects. Then I started to help Victor Hrebenyovskyi. He said well, you live in Lviv and do not return to Buchach that often, but let’s work together and let’s do something together; I lack people and I lack knowledge. I said okay, I could propose some literary meetings. Thus it happened. Then there were people who were dancing professionally, and they said: “We can do some master-classes because it is good to talk and to listen to music, but we would like to engage people in this space, we want people to be active.”

And then it started that people…I mean, the idea was that we do not only bring projects to the city, but also discover local talents. For instance, if you can make good cheesecake, you can come to us and tell us all how to make it. And we had those cases! And we had a full house. Women came, listened, and said: “How do you do it? Show us!” Then we all tried the cheesecake. I mean, of course, the process of making it was long, and during this we listened to music and watched movies, but in the end…this creation of the community is very good communication because our people are very…we have a very big audience of people. We have young mothers with children who do not know what to do on a Sunday evening. On Sunday morning everybody goes to church or watches TV, and on Sunday evening we do not have any café that stays open late. We do not have any good space where you can come and relax. Now lately we have some public urban spaces—a fountain, a square—and they more or less look well.

The courtyard is very comfortable. Well, it does not have a roof and there is a risk when it rains and it is not nice, but on the other hand it is always cozy and comfortable there. We also have older people coming to us. There is a gentleman who is 80 and something years old. He comes to the courtyard every Sunday, listens to everything, and then has a discussion. He has a lot of questions. His friends also come and this is very good. There are also many young people, and we are happy about that.

Of course, we try to formulate the program of this art courtyard in a way that it would be interesting for different target audiences. We have two hours from 6 till 8 on Sunday. This is the arrangement we have with the people who live in the houses around the courtyard, because we do not want to disturb them. We try to combine events, for example a literary presentation and a book or music presentation. Then we had a master class and film screening. We wanted people to have a choice, and we also planned our events long in advance. Thus, at the beginning of the month we have a clear plan of what we are going to offer people that month. There is also a poster with the program in the center of the city…

Iryna Slavinska: Amazing discipline.

Mariana Maksymiak: Yes, everybody comes and knows that in two weeks there will be this event and Vasyl Makhno will be there. Then whoever wants to come notes it in their calendar and comes. Some people can also think: “Oh, he is from Chortkiv and my friend is from Chortkiv!” These are personal ties, but they work.

Iryna Slavinska: Yes, it works indeed. To continue with the topic of how the city is changing or can be changing through these initiatives, I would like to separately ask you, how could the Agnon Literary Center concretely influence the city? I have a brochure in my hands now, and there is a very ambitious phrase there: “The center is trying to return Buchach to the literary map of the world through its projects.” How is it going to be achieved?

Mariana Maksymiak: When we were talking about the possible work of this center, we looked at it strategically and tried to see what could be the areas for development, and we understood that we have two vectors. First of all, there is the internal vector, directed to the inhabitants of the city. Usually we are ready to go outside the city; we are ready even to return Buchach to the map of our country and even the world, speaking very ambitiously.

Iryna Slavinska: Well, our country is on the map of the world.

Mariana Maksymiak: Yes, obviously. That is why we thought, okay, but we are interested in working with the residents. We would like this audience to develop, we want it to be different, more interesting, and bigger. Those projects that are directed internally are first of all an opportunity for people to see and to hear live modern Ukrainian writers in their own city. Not everybody has the opportunity to buy books. We have a bookstore, but I should admit it is a very sad one. Not everyone can go to see or hear something in nearby Frankivsk or Ternopil. When we, for example, brought the writers, and when Taras Prohasko or Halyna Vdovychenko came, people were buying their books, and this is a sign that, when coffee costs 10 or 8 hryvnyas, a person in a small city is ready to buy a book for 50 hryvnyas. Obviously, there was a need for these events and people wanted to attend them a lot. Then we thought, why not? We are ready to bring in the writers. We are ready to invite them and organize book presentations. This is what we are doing for the people in the city.

On the other hand, we have people who write. They are very young people and they also want to develop themselves. Thus we decided to have the club in the center, and with the help of this club people can try to go beyond Buchach. They can still do something in Buchach, but they can also progress somehow.

Besides, we have educational projects. This is a very broad notion, but in this brochure it is quite defined. Thinking about why people know that little about Agnon and what he was doing and writing in Buchach, there was the issue that people do not understand the selection process for the Nobel Prize, and what is the Nobel Prize in literature. Who are these people? Who can they be? We have some educational projects for young people, for teenagers. Maybe we will implement them in the schools. We want to develop an audience that will understand what is going on.

Irina Slavinska: I also understand that you will have an outward element…I am reading here about the literary residence project, literary guides of the city… I guess all of this is about opening the city to other people.

Mariana Maksymiak: This approach has an external focus and these projects will be directed outside of the city. For instance, a very interesting event next week will be an excursion in both Buchach and Ivano-Frankivsk, and this is the first attempt to work with some partner organizations. We will organize a tour of the city called “The Paths of Agnon.”

Iryna Slavinska: As might be expected, four months is a very big start for the new project and we will follow it going forward. I would like to remind you that we here on the program “Encounters” discussed the Agnon Literary Center, which was opened in July 2015 in the city of Buchach, and the Literary Center program director Mariana Maksymiak told all of us about it.

“Encounters” is created with the support of Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared here.
Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger