Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor of the Holocaust whose writing is stamped by a melancholy sense of the doom he managed to elude. He writes in Hebrew, but many of his novels and short stories have been translated into English. His writing has earned for him a significant and distinctive place in contemporary fiction. None of his texts directly alludes to the Holocaust’s appalling reality of suffering and deaths, but the horrors to come (or remembered) are a constant flickering on the horizon of his muted, compressed, austerely understated perspective.
Appelfeld’s hometown of Czernowitz, in the province of Bukovina, had belonged to the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when it became part of the newly created nation of Romania; it is now in Ukraine. Appelfeld was seven years old when German troops occupied Czernowitz. His mother was killed, and he and his father were transported to Ukraine and separately interned. In 1941, Appelfeld managed to escape from his camp. Being blond and able to speak Ukrainian, he was able to hide his Jewish identity from the Germans and anti-Semitic Ukrainian peasants. For three years he worked as a shepherd and farmhand, associating mostly with horse thieves and prostitutes. After the armistice, he joined a group of boys who wandered to southern Italy and from there migrated to British-mandate Palestine in 1946. There he worked on a farm in the mornings and learned Hebrew in the afternoons. From 1948 to 1950, he served in the Israeli army.
In 1950, Appelfeld passed the matriculation examination for admission to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After obtaining his B.A. and M.A. degrees, he studied briefly in Zurich and Oxford but then returned to Israel, where he eventually taught Jewish literature at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. He married an Argentine-born woman, and they had two sons and one daughter. In 1960, he chanced to see his father’s name on a list of immigrants due to arrive from Eastern Europe, and they were reunited.
In the late 1950’s, Appelfeld began to write—first poems, then stories, and finally short novels. It took him a long time to find his natural voice and subject matter. In a revealing interview with the American author Philip Roth, Appelfeld noted that Franz Kafka’s works, which he had discovered in the 1950’s, had influenced him more deeply than those of any other writer. The best known of Appelfeld’s translated novels is the first one published in the United States, Badenheim 1939, whose Hebrew title could more literally be translated as “Badenheim, resort town.” Badenheim is a Jewish spa near Vienna, where, in the summer of 1939, the...
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