Ephraim Kishon, 1924 – 2005

2/4/2005 – He was one of the most popular satirists of all time, with over 50 books selling 43 million copies in 37 different languages. He was also a chess enthusiast who survived the Holocaust by playing games against a guard. He even designed his own chess computer. Ephraim Kishon died on January 29, 2005, aged 80. In memoriam...

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A final farewell: Ephraim Kishon at 80
Photo AP/Stern

Ephraim Kishon was born Ferenc Hoffmann in Budapest in 1924, the son of a middle-class Jewish family and as such was refused admission to Hungary's Nazi-controlled university. So he became a goldsmith. During the Second World War he was imprisoned by the Nazis in a number of concentration camps. Kishon's chess playing skills helped to keep him alive, at least in one camp whose commandant was in search of an opponent. In another camp a German officer lined up Jewish inmates and shot dead every tenth person, passing him by. “They made the mistake of letting a satirist live,” Kishon later remarked. Later while being transported to the Sobibor death camp in Poland, Kishon managed to escape. He survived the remainder of the war in disguise as “Stanko Andras”, a Slovakian labourer.

In 1945 Kishon returned to Hungary to study art, and began publishing humorous plays for the stage. But he did not get on with the new Communist regime and in May 1949 migrated to the new state of Israel. There he picked up Hebrew very quickly and, just two years after his arrival, began publishing stories and newspaper columns in that language. He also wrote plays and feature films, which won national and international acclaim. For his films he received three Golden Globe prizes and two Oscars.

But it was his books that brought the greatest success. He published over 50 in Hebrew, and a total of 700 in 37 different languages. They were almost always on the bestseller list. 43 million copies were sold world wide, half a century of writing.

On a personal note

From the late sixties on Ephraim Kishon's books were translated into German, by an Austrian writer named Friedrich Torberg. This was a marriage made in heaven, since Torberg's renderings wonderfully preserved the light ironical Jewish style in a language that for a long time had lost touch with this kind of humour. Friedrich Torberg died in 1979, but by then Kishon had mastered the language well enough to write in German himself.

The success was without parallel. Throughout the seventies and eighties Kishon's books were at the top of all German bestseller lists, people from all circles of life presented each other with the latest volumes for birthdays and at Christmas.

I remember reading every book Kishon wrote, always in German, because I thought Torberg's translations were far superior to the English ones I encountered. We were weaned on his satire. Who can forget the story of the mathematics professor emigrating to Israel. Since he cannot get by on his teacher's salary he starts selling items from the "care" packages he receives from relatives back in America to the students in his class. When the school director tells him that walking around the campus with a hawker's tray crying "Hershey bars, peanuts, chocolates" was not compatible with his academic status, he takes the only logical decision: to stop teaching and go into campus vending full time. Or the story in which an Egyptian spy, posing as an Israeli carpenter, is exposed when he uses all three screws on a door hinge. No Israeli carpenter, in historical time has done that – they either use the top two holes or the top and bottom one. Never all three.

One of my favourites tells of Ephraim and his friend Jossele sitting at a café when a delivery truck loses a large cardboard box. The two grab it and eagerly examine its contents. When it turns out to contain thousands of little pin flags advertising cod liver oil (or something, I don't remember the details), Ephraim is very disappointed. Not so Jossele, who gasps: "My God, we are rich!" He gets two tin cans, cuts a slit in the top and the two start pinning the flags onto the lapels of passers-by. The story ends in them finding a printing press in Haifa that will produce 10,000 new flags for them at a reasonable price. The story taught us a very important lesson: opportunities will come, to everyone. One must just be prepared to recognize them.

When the first chess computers were produced Kishon rediscovered the passion of his youth. He soon had a fair-sized collection of the nicest sets, and even set aside a room in his house where he could have them all running at the same time. Since I was the editor of a computer chess magazine at the time we came into contact. Kishon regularly wrote letters to the magazine, each in his distinctive style, and even visited some of the computer chess tournaments we periodically staged.


Ephraim Kishon with his own chess computer in 1990

During this time he also made contact with the leading German chess computer manufacturer, Hegener & Glaser, and undertook to design his own chess machine. It was the Kishon Chesster, built by Fidelity (a H&G daughter) in 1990. The computer ran on a 3.6 MHz 6502 (eight-bit) processor with 32 KB of ROM and 8 KB of RAM. The programmers were Dan and Kathe Spracklen. The set had pressure-sensitive squares and signalled its moves with a coordinate system of 16 LEDs placed around the board. The openings book had 16,000 moves and the playing strength was around 1800 Elo.

The distinctive feature of Kishon Chesster was that the computer had a fairly large vocabulary of spoken chess comments, which it uttered under certain circumstances during the game. Naturally the commentary was humorous, but Kishon had also made sure that it was not gratuitously so. The remarks were chess relevant and had been carefully crafted by Kishon himself.


A 1991 ad for the talking Kishon Chesster

I met Ephraim a number of times during this period, often during events or talk shows involving computer chess. In real life he was as charming and funny as in his books. On long drives or at dinners he would tell us stories or simply conduct witty banter, never at a loss for a whimsical thought or an ironical turn of phrase. Sometimes the encounters were quite poignant. I met him during the first Gulf War and he spent an evening describing very graphically what it was like to be under Scud attack in Tel Aviv. What it was like to hear the screech and thud, to fear a possible chemical warhead, or something even worse. And what it was like to know that your country could put an end to the assault in a matter of hours, but could not do so for diplomatic reasons.

My last contact with Ephraim was two years ago, when I showed him the chatter function of Fritz, which has some similarities with the Kishon Chesster talking function. He was fascinated, especially since Fritz had no limitation with regard to memory or the volume of remarks it could solve. Also the Fritz chatter system allows a very fine differentiation of the chessboard events that can trigger a remark. Kishon was determined to compose his own set of remarks and contacted us a number of times to work out technical details. Unfortunately the project did not materialise, perhaps because he was a Macintosh person, while Fritz lives in the Windows world.

A final memory of the great satirist was a couple of years ago, when a young journalist cautiously broached the subject of Kishon's advanced age. His reply was as follows (I quote as exactly as I can remember): "You know, I have done a lot of thinking about old age, and I have come to the conclusion that it has no advantages, no positive side to it. None at all. Except one – a single advantage. You can say 'I have made it so far – how about you?'.

We will miss you sadly, Ephraim.

Frederic Friedel

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