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Haim Gouri, 94, poetic voice of a rising Israel

ABIR SULTAN/EPA/Shutterstock/File 2017

Mr. Gouri was often described as the last of Israel’s national poets.

By Isabel Kershner New York Times  

JERUSALEM — Haim Gouri wrote of the terrible sacrifice of war, and of memory and camaraderie.

A celebrated poet and often critical voice of Israel’s founding generation and its conscience, he also wrote of the wrenching inner dilemmas, complexities, and contradictions of the Zionist enterprise that tormented him.

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Mr. Gouri, who was also a journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker, died Wednesday at his home in Jerusalem. He was 94.

Mr. Gouri was often described as the last of Israel’s national poets. One of his early poems, “I Am a Civil War,” encapsulated the search for elusive justice with the line, “And there, those in the right fire on the others in the right.”

Rendered economically in five words in Hebrew, it was “the most important line I have ever written in my life,” Mr. Gouri said in an interview last year.

He grew up in a socialist Zionist family, spending his childhood in the 1920s and ’30s in Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city in what was then British-ruled Palestine. As a young man he joined the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Hagana underground, which fought in the 1940s to establish the state of Israel.

Some of his most beloved poems commemorated the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, during which he fought in the Negev desert.

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Those include “Hareut,” Hebrew for friendship or comradeship, and “Bab al-Wad,” a haunting memorial to those who fell in battle trying to open the road to Jerusalem. Set to music, the poems have become hallowed anthems for Israeli Jews, secular hymns to fellowship and the emerging identity, language, and culture of a young but divided country.

“Through your pen we learned whole chapters of the history of the state of Israel,” Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, said Thursday in a eulogy as Mr. Gouri’s coffin lay in state in the courtyard of the Jerusalem Theater.

The theater stands a block from Mr. Gouri’s home of more than 50 years, a modest, book-lined apartment on the third floor of a walk-up building in a leafy, genteel neighborhood of his adopted city.

“For you,” Rivlin added, “the Hebrew Israeli life was always a wonder not to be taken for granted, a lesson to be learned.”

The Hagana sent Mr. Gouri to Hungary in 1947 to help Holocaust survivors in displaced-persons camps reach Palestine, an experience that deeply affected him.

As a filmmaker, he was best known for his work on a trilogy of documentaries, notably “The 81st Blow,” a film about the Holocaust that was nominated for an Academy Award in 1974. The two others, made in the 1980s, were “The Last Sea,” about Jewish immigration to Palestine, and “Flames in the Ashes,” about Jewish resistance during World War II.

As a journalist, he covered, in 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who oversaw the lethal logistics of the Holocaust, and had been captured by Israeli agents in Argentina the year before.

For many Israelis, the trial was the first time they heard the shocking testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Mr. Gouri said it was only during the trial that he understood what had happened to the Jews.

After fighting as a reservist in Jerusalem in the 1967 war, caught up in the euphoria of victory, Mr. Gouri joined the Land of Israel Movement, a political organization of intellectuals from across the Israeli political spectrum who advocated holding on to all the newly conquered territories. He later changed his mind and left the movement.

In more recent years, he became increasingly critical of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and of what he saw as rising nationalism and religious extremism in some sectors of Israeli society.

Mr. Gouri seemed anguished by the lack of any resolution between Palestinians and Jews in the competition over the land, as if the 1948 and 1967 wars had never ended.

Mr. Gouri began his journalistic career writing for left-wing party newspapers before moving on to Davar, a now-defunct Hebrew daily. He leaves his wife, three daughters, and six grandchildren.

Mr. Gouri also wrote poems about love and childhood and, in his later years, his mortality. His last book of Hebrew poems, published in 2015, was titled, “Though I Wished for More of More.”

In the title poem, he wrote:

Know that time, enemies, the wind and the water

Will not erase you

You will continue, made up of letters

That is not a little

Something, after all, will remain of you.