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Omer Meir Wellber


Omer Meir Wellber (b. 1981) is one of Israel’s leading conductors of operatic and orchestral repertoire. Music Director of the Teatro Massimo Palermo and Artistic Director of the Toscanini Festival, he has since 2009 served as Music Director of Israel’s Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra. Wellber is also the incoming Music Director of the Volksoper Wien. He has worked with some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, and is a regular guest conductor at the Israeli Opera.


A long-standing association with the Semperoper Dresden culminated in Wellber’s appointment as Principal Guest Conductor between 2018 and 2022. Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic between 2019 and 2022, Wellber gave his inaugural concert at the BBC Proms in July 2019. Other career highlights include serving as Music Director at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia between 2010 and 2014, and assisting Daniel Barenboim at the Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala between 2008 and 2010.


Wellber is a Goodwill Ambassador for Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli-based non-profit organization that provides critical cardiac medical support. He works with various institutions on a range of music outreach programs, and is a passionate champion of the emerging generation of Israeli conductors.


The Asennces of Haim Birkner (Die vier Ohnmachten des Chaim Birkner), Wellber’s first novel, was published by Germany’s Berlin Verlag in 2019, and by Sellerio Editore in Italy in 2021 (Storia vera e non vera di Chaim Birker). The French translation has been published in September 2022 by Éditions du Sous-Sol/Le Seuil. Die Angst, das Risiko und die Liebe - Momente mit Mozart, which explores the emotional context of the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas, was published in Germany in the spring of 2017.

Title: The Absences of Chaim Birkner


Publisher: Keren Books

Year: 2023

174 pp.


Translation rights: World English

Translations: Complete German, French and Italian translations. Partial English

Rights sold to Germany (Berlin Verlag), France (Sous Sol/Le Seuil), Italy (Sellerio)

It is the near future, and Chaim Birkner is about to turn 108 years. He is the oldest man in Israel, and quite possibly the last Holocaust survivor. When a celebration to commemorate the event is announced, Chaim sparks a scandal by deciding to return to Hungary, and to the apartment of his parents which he has resolved never to sell. A century of memories converge, images juxtaposed across one another in the story of one man’s life: sometimes sincere, sometimes ironic, sometimes tragic, sometimes fantasy.


A Jew from Budapest, Chaim recalls his childhood and his father: their dreams and their indiscreet deeds, the Torah Rolls that they saved from their synagogue, his first love. He revisits his escape, under dubious circumstances, from the Budapest Ghetto to Palestine: a Jew saved, but deprived forever of the status of a survivor.


From there to his new life in a new land: the Kibbutz, marriage, separation; the small jobs, the betrayals, the other women; conflicts between survivors from the Old World and the pioneers in the Land of Israel.


The Absences of Chaim Birkner is the tale of a tired and devastated man facing up, for the last time, to his complex past—invented, but also sometimes very true.


Critical Praise


The novel, which often follows without transition the narrator’s memories across a centenary, also explores the consequences of lies and of the unspoken on family life... Despite a sometimes intermittent narrative, this imaginative novel seduces the reader with strong characters who are determined to do what they want. Even if this might be wrong.

Le Monde

Wellber's prognostication on Israel's future is readable. In his first novel… Chaim is a hundred and eight-year-old who leaves his country and is on his way to disappearing. The year is 2038. Israel still exists. That's good. But it is in the hands of fundamentalists. Jews are fleeing back to Europe. Chaim plans to go to Hungary. There, it has not yet become an anti-Semitic hell. That’s good, too. Wellber collected material for his book on his cell phone while out and about—bottled messages to Chaim Birkner, as it were—which he then incorporated into the novel during the summer vacation. This two-hundred-page book is not an Israel dystopia. It is not a Holocaust book. Here, the Holocaust manifests in the form of as an echo chamber; as an undercurrent on which Chaim's fluid identity draws twists and turns and funny figures, at times heart-breaking ones...

The life trajectory of Chaim Birkner serves as the cantus firmus for Wellber's novel. Around it, he has scattered leitmotifs—the story of the Torah scrolls, for example, salvaged from the Nazis by Chaim's father in Budapest, a story that is repeatedly told anew (Torah scrolls as a Wagnerian leitmotif is one of the not-so-few cruel ironies in the novel). The structure is fluid, musical. Linear thinking, Wellber figured, is not possible for someone like Chaim…

So the story jumps through time and perspectives, creating a panorama of scenes that have never appeared in literary panoramas of Israel. As an example—the depth of the rift on kibbutzim, between Holocaust survivors and those Israelis already born in the country.

December 1, 2019 Welt am Sonntag No. 48

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