Badenheim 1939 displays a sequence of both realistic and symbolic events beginning in the early spring of 1939 in the Austrian resort town of Badenheim and ending with the deportation of the Jews in late fall of the same year. A third-person narrator, in detached and understated style, reports the steps taken by the Sanitation Department to gain control of the town and abridge the freedoms of its inhabitants while revealing how specific people react to each succeeding deprivation.
The novel opens in 1939, amid swirls of unidentified rumors, as a foreboding, uneasy spring returns to Badenheim with the sound of country church bells ringing, two Sanitation Department inspectors examining a flow of sewage, and Trude delirious with a haunting fear that is also beginning to infect her husband. Shortly after the arrival of Dr. Pappenheim, the director of the summer festival, the perennial vacationers arrive and the town is abuzz with activity as the city people, anxious to relieve themselves of worry and the memories of an unusually strange past winter, stream toward the forest.
With the arrival of the feisty musicians, the vacationers wildly vent their emotions on liquor and pastries, and an inspector from the Sanitation Department appears at the pharmacy, asking peculiar details about the business and taking measurements with a yardstick. As time passes, Trude worries even more about her daughter, Helena, who married a non-Jewish military officer against her parents’ wishes and, in Trude’s visions, is being held captive on her husband’s estate, where she is beaten every evening when he returns from the barracks. Concurrently, the Sanitation Department expands its power to conduct independent investigations as it spreads all over town, taking measurements, putting up fences, planting flags, unloading rolls of barbed wire, and preparing cement pillars. The large south gate to Badenheim is closed, and a small, unused gate is opened for pedestrians. The guests, interpreting these activities as attempts to make the summer festival the best one ever, pursue gluttonous merriment even though Dr. Pappenheim’s “artists” are breaking their promises to appear at the festival. With a memory of the past summer, when the musicians surprised even themselves and annoyed the regular guests by sliding into playing Jewish melodies, a new theme is introduced.
Badenheimers become estranged, suspicious, and mistrustful of one another as the Sanitation Department completes its investigations and in the middle of May posts a “modest” sign requiring all Jewish citizens to register with the Sanitation Department. Who is and is not Jewish becomes a matter of heated debate, with some denying Jewishness because of either personal conviction or conversion and others readily proclaiming their Jewishness. Foremost for all is the belief that they are Austrian first and Jewish second and that their national allegiance supersedes all others. Badenheimers are discomforted, and several begin remembering their past while some of them blame the Department’s intrusion on the Ostjuden, the Eastern European Polish Jews, many of whom have not abandoned their Jewish heritage to assimilate into the Austrian culture.
As brief glimpses into the background of some of the guests are revealed and alliances and schisms among people are developing, the Sanitation Department posts pictures and descriptions of Poland and invitations to leave Austria and go to Poland. Twin-brother readers foreshadow the future by performing their specialty, readings of the death poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and the Sanitation Department denies everyone except the milkman and the fruit truck driver entrance to or exit from the town. More deprivations follow as forest walks, picnics, and excursions are terminated as well as swimming in the pool, because the water supply is closed. Meanwhile, the non-Jews are leaving Badenheim.
The lives of other guests and their feelings about being Jewish are revealed as people are forced into closer contact with one another, and the “alien orange shadow” and “leaden sun” symbolize the town atmosphere. Vegetation grows unchecked as people learn that they are prisoners in the town with no postal service and that all Jews, even Jews who renounced Judaism or whose parents had converted to Christianity, will be forced to “transfer” to Poland. With only a few exceptions, people accept the edict, and many try to find the positive in the transfer. Food supplies begin to dwindle as the town fills with strangers—people dragged in from all over Austria because they were born in Badenheim. Even the feeble town rabbi, long ago relegated to an isolated old-age home, is brought into town. Derangement and chaos erupt as people seeking drugs loot the pharmacy and the musicians steal the hotel’s dinnerware in preparation for their forced “transfer” to Poland. Finally, Helena comes home without her non-Jewish husband. (“A goy will always be a goy. And your goy too is a goy. I’m not sorry,” says Trude.)
Even the four dogs, pets of the headwaiter, try to escape by jumping the fence; driven back, all but one is shot. Ultimately, blame is placed on Dr. Pappenheim as “the arch Ostjude and source of all our troubles,” because he invented the festival and “filled the town with morbid artists and decadent vacationers.”
At last, the time for deportation arrives: “How easy the transition was—they hardly felt it.” In fact, the policeman who escorts the Badenheimers to the train station has a very easy task because people, glad to be free of their confinement, are in fine spirits as they discuss the advantages of...
(The entire section is 2323 words.)