The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Speaking Letters: Hermeneutics and The Hebrew–German Exchange in Dan Pagis’s Writing

In 1995, Dan Pagis’ prose work Abba (Father) was published posthumously in the edited anthology Kol hashirim (Complete Poems). Like other statehood generation poets who came from a German-speaking background, including Yehuda Amichai and Nathan Zach, Pagis turned to Hebrew as his primary language, writing primarily in a seemingly simple vernacular idiom. Scholars have attended to the dimensions of silence embedded in Pagis’ Hebrew poetry around his German-speaking past and Holocaust experiences. His prose writing, however, remains understudied and reveals Pagis’ attempt to speak of the past beyond the monolingual trends characterizing the writers of the statehood generation, offering a new poetic language of correspondence through letters, dialogue, and speech, situated at the midst of the German-Jewish hyphen.

In Abba, Pagis, a holocaust survivor, imagines a dialogue between himself and his father wherein the two negotiate their estranged relationship, while also incorporating letters his mother wrote to his father in 1934. Written originally in German and translated by Pagis, this paper examines the presence of the real letter within the fictional text not only as a literary device but as a new form of speech by the subject who cannot speak. In the text, the mother’s letters are read out-load by the son to his father. How should we understand the relationship between speech and writing, expressed by the fictional reading of the letter out-load? What kind of sound does prose and fictionality provide for the silent Holocaust survivor? Attending to the real letters in this text, this paper examines modes of correspondences and dialogic speech in Pagis’ writing between the fictional and the documentary, the epistolary and theatrical dialogue, “original” language and translation.