Appelfeld, Aharon (Short Story Criticism)
Aharon Appelfeld 1932–-
Rumanian-born Israeli short story writer, novelist, essayist, and poet.
A survivor of the Holocaust, Appelfeld uses muted symbolism and understated, parabolic prose to examine the effects of anti-Semitism upon assimilated European Jews. Although Appelfeld avoids commenting directly on the politics and horrors associated with the Third Reich, his fiction—often set in Nazi-occupied locales immediately prior to World War II—poignantly foreshadows the Holocaust to come. Appelfeld's protagonists usually reject or minimize their commitment to Judaism in order to assimilate with European society; confronted with anti-Semitic attitudes, they experience feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, and self-hatred.
Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Rumania, in 1932. The son of bourgeois Polish Jews, he was only eight years old when his family fell victim to the Holocaust. While on vacation in the country, Nazi troops shot and killed his mother, and Appelfeld and his father were sent to a labor camp in Transnistria. He escaped in 1943 and survived the remainder of World War II hiding and scavenging in the forests of the Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Upon immigrating to Palestine in 1947, he wrote poetry in several languages before deciding to write fiction exclusively in Hebrew. He attended Hebrew University and served in the Israeli army. He has remained in Israel, teaching Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University and writing both fiction and nonfiction.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Appelfeld's early literary output includes many short stories addressing the effect of the Holocaust on Jews; several of these pieces appeared in In the Wilderness. His first novella translated into English, Badenheim 1939, is set in an Austrian spa in the summer of 1939. It depicts a group of people on vacation, many of nominal Jewish faith, who are forced to register with uniformed agents of the “Sanitation Department.” After the entire community is revealed to be Jewish, the visitors blandly accept their removal to Poland. In Appelfeld's Tor hapela’ot (The Age of Wonders), a young boy watches as his father, an assimilated, anti-Semitic Austrian of Jewish descent, is destroyed by his inability to conceal his background. Although the boy survives the Holocaust and is invited to resurrect his father's writings, he chooses to embrace Judaism rather than accept his father's hatred for his own race.
Appelfeld is considered one of Israel's most distinguished novelists and short fiction writers. Critics praise his deft exploration of Jewish themes, especially the question of what it means to be Jewish in the modern age. In fact, the characters in his stories usually question or hide their commitment to Judaism in order to assimilate with European society; commentators have frequently considered the social implications of this theme. Moreover, the autobiographical nature of Appelfeld's fiction has been a rich subject for critical study. His work has received high praise from British and American critics and elicited frequent comparison to the works of Franz Kafka for its hallucinatory prose style and detached characters.
*‘Ashan (short stories) 1962
Kefor ‘al ha’arets (novella) 1965
In the Wilderness (short stories) 1965
Bekomat hakarka’ (short stories) 1968
Adenei hanahar (short stories) 1971
Ke’ishon ha’ayin [Like the Pupil of an Eye] (novella) 1972
Shanim veha’ot Years and Hours (novella) 1974–1975
Tor hapela’ot [Age of Wonders] (novella) 1978
Badenheim ‘ir nofesh [Badenheim 1939] (novella) 1979
To the Land of the Cattails [also published as To the Land of the Reeds] (novella) 1986
**The Immortal Bartfuss (novella) 1988
**Tzili: The Story of a Life (novel) 1983
The Retreat (novel) 1984
Ba’et uve’onah achat [The Healer] (novel) 1985
Writing and the Holocaust (nonfiction) 1988
**As For Every Sin (novel) 1989
Katerinah [Katerina] (novel) 1989
Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth (lectures) 1994
Unto the Soul (novel) 1994
The Conversion (novel) 1998
The Iron Tracks (novel)...
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SOURCE: “The Appelfeld World,” in Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, Columbia University Press, 1984, pp. 203–38.
[In the following essay, Mintz explores the defining characteristics of Appelfeld's work.]
[Uri Zvi] Greenberg and Appelfeld are the two great writers of the Holocaust in Hebrew literature, yet their imaginative worlds are vastly different, so different in fact as to challenge the usefulness of notions of a shared language or poetics of a Holocaust literature. Temperament aside, the difference between Greenberg and Appelfeld comes down to a basic divergence in biographical circumstance: the situation of the bystander to catastrophe as against the situation of the survivor of catastrophe. Describing Greenberg as a bystander should indicate that the term implies nothing of aloofness. Who could have been more engaged than Greenberg? His poetry foresaw, preached, grieved, broke down, lamented, memorialized. Yet all these modes of engagement reflect the same truth about the nature of engagement itself: implied is an experiencing self and an event that stands apart from it. Although the event may engulf the self and the self may incorporate the event or integrate aspects of it, the apartness remains as a distance to be crossed. Greenberg was a major poet before the Holocaust, and even if afterward the poetry had been transformed beyond recognition—which was far from the...
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SOURCE: “Aharon Appelfeld and the Uses of Language and Silence,” in Remembering for the Future: The Impact of the Holocaust on the Contemporary World, Volume II, Pergamon Press, 1989, pp. 1602–609.
[In the following essay, Langer contends that Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939 is full of narrative ironies, and that “his language contains a Janus-like energy, full of hints and portents that never achieve the clarity of expressed meaning.”]
Aharon Appelfeld's art takes us on a journey into the realm of the unsaid; but it rejects the corollary idea, so often maintained by commentators on Holocaust literature, that the unsaid is necessarily unsayable. This distinction is at the heart of his imaginative vision. His fiction invites us to experience not catastrophe, but the avoidance of catastrophe, or the silences surrounding it. This obscures but does not negate the catastrophe, which his characters deny or refuse to discuss while his readers sculpt its outlines from the scanty details available in the world of his fiction. His language contains a Janus-like energy, full of hints and portents that never achieve the clarity of expressed meaning. The evidence of hindsight conspires with the absence of foresight to implicate us in the drama of recognition that comprises the essence of his art.
Appelfeld crowds his best-known novella, Badenheim 1939, with narrative...
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SOURCE: “Impossible Mourning: Two Attempts to Remember Annihilation,” in Centennial Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 445–59.
[In the following essay, Hatley addresses the role of memory and mourning in the novella, Badenheim 1939.]
I. BADENHEIM 1939: ANNIHILATED BODIES
Where are these dead? In a memorable scene from Badenheim 1939, a novel by Aharon Appelfeld, several fictive Jews gather at the home of two fictive ladies of the evening, long-time and beloved residents of a fictional European resort. The characters improvise a small party on the last night in Badenheim before their forced departure to Nazi-occupied Poland. Poised on the brink of their extermination in one of the death-camps and yet surreptitiously conspiring to remain ignorant of their fate, these fictional characters spend an evening celebrating this small bit of life they must leave behind:
Every word that was said aroused her laughter. “Why are you laughing?” asked Sally.
“For no reason. Just because people make me laugh.”
But the liqueur did not bring gaiety. The people sank deeper into the armchairs. The light from the lamps poured onto the floor as from a broken tube. The colored wall, adorned with reproductions, seemed to come...
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SOURCE: “Aharon Appelfeld—The Age of Wonders,” in Imagining the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, pp. 129–52.
[In the following essay, Sokoloff considers Appelfeld's use of a child's perspective in Age of Wonders, maintaining that it “may cast the world of devastation in a light that makes recollection of the past more bearable for author and reader.”]
The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads To bury itself deep somewhere inside our memories.
But now I am no more a child For I have learned to hate. I am a grown-up person now, I have known fear. Bloody words and a dead day then, That's something different than bogie men! But anyway, I still believe I only sleep today, That I'll wake up, a child again, and start to laugh and play.
—Hanuš Hachenburg, “Terezín,” I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezín Concentration Camp, 1942–1944
In his essays Aharon Appelfeld has commented directly on some of the dilemmas that artists face as they attempt to speak, in retrospect, of unspeakable horror. He formulates his ideas in the same vocabulary and concepts that Bialik provided half a century before and which figured so importantly in that author's own...
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SOURCE: “Aharon Appelfeld's The Immortal Bartfuss: The Holocaust, the Body, and Repression,” in Hebrew Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust, edited by Leon I. Yudkin, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993, pp. 85–96.
[In the following essay, Goodman traces the development of the protagonist of The Immortal Bartfuss.]
Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor of the Holocaust who, in his own words, has been “inclined” by fate for “some reason,” to literature. He tries to speak, as he says, of
the individual whose mother and father gave him/her a name, to whom they taught their language, gave of their love and bequeathed of their belief. This individual who, because of the many, has been obliterated and become one of the many … is the individual whose essence is the core of the literary vision.1
It is this individual of whom he feels compelled to speak, for
… at the moment that simple truth is revealed to you, you are no longer free to deal with the grand and the lofty: you learn to inquire modestly about this individual whose soul you would touch or, to be presumptuous about it, whose essence you would reach.
And he adds:
This individual is a Jew. Willingly or unwillingly he is a...
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SOURCE: “In the Fertile Valley,” in Aharon Appelfeld: The Holocaust and Beyond, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 56–72.
[In the following essay, Ramras-Rauch provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Appelfeld's In the Fertile Valley.]
Appelfeld's deep study of Jewish motifs begins in his second collection of short stories, Ba‘guy Ha’poreh (In the Fertile Valley, 1963). Appelfeld sometimes uses the first-person narrator in these stories of the 1960s; but when he does, the effect is not markedly different from his third-person narration. The reader is not introduced to the inner life of the character; nor is a single point of view maintained. Thus no special certainties are in store for the reader when a first-person narrator is introduced. On the contrary, the first-person voice often introduces doubt and uncertainty. Statements are often rhetorical, speculative, even poetic, but they do not supply any special information related to that voice. The omnipresent voice of the narrator, in conjunction with the first-person mode, does not introduce information; rather, it may allude to “hidden intentions” whose source is unknown. At times the oblique statements are reminiscent of the “authorities” that pervade Kafka's text; occasionally those hidden intentions have an affinity to Hassidic lore, in which metapersonal powers intervene in mysterious ways. Moreover, there is...
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Cohen, Joseph. “Aharon Appelfeld.” In Voices of Israel, pp. 107–40. Albany: State University of New York, 1990.
Discusses Appelfeld's experiences during the Holocaust and how they have impacted his life and work.
Wisse, Ruth. “Aharon Appelfeld, Survivor.” In Commentary 75, No. 8 (1983): 73–6.
Provides an overview of Appelfeld's life and work.
Additional coverage of Appelfeld's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 112, 133; and Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 23, and 47.
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