The story of how a fighter in the Palmach, a Jewish underground organization from the pre-state era, managed to translate a popular children's classic while incarcerated in Jerusalem’s central prison…
I’m holding this tiny booklet wrapped in a plain, orange book cover, and reading the words written in fastidious circular Hebrew handwriting, in the right corner of the title page:
“Just before school,
Accept from afar,
a humble gift”.
Underneath, the title reads:
“The Ugly Duckling.
Jerusalem P., 15 Elul, 5704.”
Who is Hagit? Who was responsible for this mysterious handwritten translation of a classic children’s fairytale? What is “Jerusalem P.” (ב”ס ירושלים)? And exactly how “afar” was the booklet sent from?
The origins of this story stretch back eighty years, to the day when a British military court sentenced Tuvia Hadani to five years in prison for possession of illegal arms.
It was the same day that newspaper headlines ran with the news that the British were finally successful in stopping the Germans in North Africa, and it was easy to overlook the meager caption in the page before the last: “Life Imprisonment for Possession of Bullets”.
The article described the verdict from the trial of several Palmach members that were caught “near a path leading to Givat Brenner”, and in possession of weapons that could only have been taken from British army bases or warehouses. The Palmach was the elite fighting unit of the Haganah, the largest Jewish underground organization during the British Mandate period in the Land of Israel. One of the defendants, as noted in the caption, was sentenced to life imprisonment. The others were sentenced to “lesser” prison sentences of five to seven years.
When one of the accused, Tuvia Hodansky, raised his hands and surrendered to the British soldiers together with his friends, he probably wasn’t thinking about graceful swans, ugly ducklings or European fairytales altogether. It was much more likely that he was pondering the sentence that awaited him and the family he would be forced to leave behind. There was nothing beautiful or whimsical about this moment – his life was about to change and not in a good way.
Tuvia (or Teddy, as his friends and family called him) was born in Leipzig, Germany, a few years prior to World War I. After becoming infatuated with Zionism, he joined one of the Zionist youth movements, left his family and made Aliyah (immigrated) to Israel.
The year was 1932, a year before the rise of the Nazis to power. Together with other recently arrived “Yekkes” (German Jews), he became a member of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, which at the time was a poor kibbutz, with land too meagre to support all its inhabitants. Since Teddy had been a carpenter’s apprentice in Germany with some expertise in the field, he and his friends established a carpentry shop, that would subsequently become a famous factory, known across Israel.
But all of this productive work was put to a halt after about a decade. During World War II, Teddy voluntarily enlisted in the Palmach, along with many youths from the kibbutzim and other Jewish agricultural settlements. Before he had even had a chance to gain experience and establish a reputation in the organization, he was caught with other Palmach members smuggling weapons. The mission’s details had been leaked to British military personnel, who were waiting for them at the designated place and time.
Following his sentence, he arrived at the prison, where he was to share a cell, some moldy mattresses and a bucket with several other underground prisoners.
It was not a quiet place. He had no desk, peace of mind or any source of inspiration. But still, when he wasn’t performing tasks for the prison administration, he sat and diligently worked on his project, a meticulous and delicate translation of the children’s fairytale, with its ironic title, considering his situation – “The Ugly Duckling”.
Did he identify with the duckling and see himself, and his own life story, when he wrote about the poor bird’s suffering and isolation?
“He got up and ran away. As he left the huge lake far behind, he came upon a small pond. He hid in the dark among the trees and waited for the break of dawn.”
Aside the beautiful and meticulously handwritten Hebrew words, he added sweet and graceful illustrations for children.
He dedicated his creation to Hagit, the daughter of Uri Steinberg, who was arrested together with him but had been given a shorter sentence.
His final product was not a professional or polished Hebrew translation by any means. It included a number of grammatical errors, which were very common at the time in the immigrant society of the early State of Israel. When I read it, I could almost hear my grandmother’s voice reading it to me, with Hebrew enunciation that we would laugh at as children: using the long “oo” vowel sound instead of the long “o”, or “sh” instead of “s”.
Was the inadequacy of the translation the reason it never got commercially published? Or was it the reality of war and conflict with the British that prevented a resourceless Palmach fighter from promoting his work?
Whatever the reason, the children of the young country never got to enjoy this creation. It was only in the latter part of the 1950s, that they were able to read a Hebrew version of “The Ugly Duckling” (translated by Malka Fishkin, Yizre’ela Publishing).
Following his release from prison, Teddy returned to the kibbutz, where he managed the famous carpentry shop. Later on, being something of an intellectual, he returned to his studies in order to complete his formal education, while also working to facilitate further Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.
Since then, there have been numerous published Hebrew translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s literature, and particularly of “The Ugly Duckling” classic. It was only posthumously, in Teddy’s memory, that members of Kibbutz Givat Brenner finally published his “Booklet” (as Amos Rudner, who had edited several of Naomi Shemer’s writings and produced the publication of this creation, called it).
When it was finally published, Hagit was a much older woman, perhaps even a mother of adult children, and so the publishers dedicated the work to all of Givat Brenner’s children.
Tuvia never got to enjoy seeing the letters of his booklet in print, letters that he managed to handwrite in erratic conditions, on the bare, cold prison floor. He never saw his delicate illustrations brought to life in color either.
He did get to see the country that he had only dreamt of back in Germany, and for which he fought for from the moment he arrived. The country that grew up and shifted from a young, feeble duckling, lacking any grace, into a beautiful and splendid swan, walking proudly and confidently among its peers, the other swans of the world.
“But when we look through this booklet, when we read it, or when we listen to our parents read it to us, we see before our eyes a proud Hebrew prisoner writing and illustrating for us, on the prison floor, translating Andersen’s story about the ugly duckling, even as he remains certain that all of his friends, his fellow prisoners, are nothing but swans dressed in ugly duckling clothes, imprisoned in a duckling pen, who are destined yet to sail and fly away as swans.”
(Amos Rudner, in the introduction to the translation)
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