Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, exactly 121 years ago, on August 24, 1899. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most prominent figures in universal literature. He wrote short stories, poems and essays and translated major works by classical authors.
He excelled in the genres of fantasy and philosophy and is one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th century. He wrote immortal stories, like The Aleph, Fictions The Gardens of Forking Paths and A Universal Story of Infamy, just to name a few.
To be sure, Borges is deemed to be one of the greatest authors never to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He used to joke about this omission, saying, “Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition”.
A lot has been said and written about this giant of literature but less known is the fact that the Argentinean writer had a special fondness and admiration for Judaism at large and the State of Israel in particular.
This sentiment was clearly spelled out in his epistolary exchange with David Ben-Gurion. On October 16, 1966, an already blind Borges, dictated these lines in his letter to the Israeli politician, in which he expressed, among other things: “I feel great admiration for your work…. Maybe you are aware of the affinity I have always felt for your admirable people… I have studied in depth the work of Baruch Spinoza and have tried to understand the intriguing universe of the Kabbalah through the writings of Martin Buber and Gershom Shole…. Beyond the randomity of the blood, we are all Greek and Hebrew.”
Ben-Gurion answered without delay, “I deeply thank you for your letter. Through the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, I have heard a great deal about your personality, your magnificent literary work and your attitude toward Israel and its spiritual legacy. I can notice from your letter our common love for Greece and the Jewish wisdom. I would be delighted if you could visit our country and come to my home at Sde Boker, in the Negev Desert”
Borges accepted the invitation and spent 10 days in Israel at the beginning of 1969, where he met Ben-Gurion for the first time. Back in Argentina, Borges said, “I have just visited the youngest and oldest nation”
I first met Borges in 1966 together with Monsignor Ernesto Segura (then bishop of Buenos Aires), and with prominent members of the Argentinean Jewish community we launched “Casa Argentina en Israel – Tierra Santa” (The Argentine House in the Holy Land). The charter of this NGO was to strengthen the cultural and interfaith ties between Argentina and Israel and to nurture the rapprochement between Catholics and Jews at large, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.
A year later, in 1967, a twin NGO with the same name was established in Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of the Jewish people, serving for decades as a bustling center of artistic and cultural activities.
In this context, our fledgling institution invited the then former prime minister Ben-Gurion to Buenos Aires to be the keynote speaker at a seminar dedicated to great philosopher Baruch Spinoza. It was there, back in 1969, when Ben-Gurion and Borges were able to spend a few days together and engage in rich philosophical and political discussions. Both men were admirers of Spinoza and shared their passion for the Greek and Jewish cultural legacy.
I had the unique privilege of accompanying Borges and Ben-Gurion during the whole stay of the latter in Buenos Aires. My conversations with these two giants made a huge impact on me. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet Borges several more times and I cherish each and every interaction I had with his bright mind. Above all, I miss his original thought and his sarcastic sense of humor, as displayed in this quotation by him: “The flattery of posterity is not worth much more than contemporary flattery, which is worth nothing.”
Many years later, before the end of the 20th century, I founded the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a global-reach NGO named after the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of lives in Hungary during the Holocaust. Its mission is to preserve and divulge the legacy of this hero and of all the women and men who reached out to the victims of Nazism and other major tragedies, such as the Armenian genocide.
In a nutshell, the foundation deals with hakarat hatov – recognizing the good – one of the pillars of Judaism. With the benefit of hindsight, revisiting our talks, I recognize that Borges was one of the key people who inspired me to embrace this notion of eternal gratitude to the rescuers.
To me, Borges was a larger-than-life figure, and I will always remember him as a personal friend and mentor.