The Iron Tracks (Magill Book Reviews)
Four decades after liberation from a forced labor camp, Erwin Siegelbaum, narrator of THE IRON TRACKS, continues to be obsessed with the Nazi atrocity. He spends most of each year revisiting towns in Austria that, though now virtually devoid of living Jews, remain rife with anti-Semitism.
Every March 27, Siegelbaum boards the train in Wirblbahn, the location of the camp where both his parents died, and makes his way through twenty-one more stations, eventually completing his circular journey a few weeks before starting the cycle all over again. His ostensible purpose is to seek out and sell vestiges of vanished Jewish culture. His secret aim, however, is to track down and exact vengeance against the Nazi officer who ran the camp at Wirblbahn.
“Man is an insect,” contends Siegelbaum, for whom his Communist father’s irrepressible optimism is no longer tenable. “Not even in hell will I deny my faith in man,” proclaimed the father, from the hell of a Nazi concentration camp. But Siegelbaum has lost any faith he could deny.
THE IRON TRACKS culminates in the narrator’s confrontation with seventy-two-year-old Colonel Nachtigel, former commandant of Wirblbahn. It is as unsatisfying as everything else in the traveler’s blighted life. In his final sentences, Siegelbaum recognizes that “I had done everything out of compulsion, clumsily, and always too late.”
Aharon Appelfeld manages to endow this wretched, benighted existence with forceful aesthetic form, forging bracing poetry out of the very inadequacy of the human response to atrocity. The novel’s spare, laconic style reinforces its author’s respect for the limitations of art and the magnitude of its subject.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, January 1, 1998, p. 773.
The Boston Globe. February 15, 1998, p. E1.
Chicago Tribune. March 8, 1998, p. 5.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, December 1, 1997, p. 1720.
Library Journal. CXXIII, January, 1998, p. 137.
Los Angeles Times. February 25, 1998, p. E2.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, March, 1998, p. 18.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 15, 1998, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 1, 1997, p. 46.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, February 15, 1998, p. 3.
World Literature Today. LXXII, Summer, 1998, p. 493.
The Iron Tracks (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Though he did not begin to learn the language until 1946, when, at age fourteen, he left Europe for Palestine, Aharon Appelfeld is, along with Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, one of the preeminent figures in contemporary Hebrew fiction. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (then Romania, but now part of Ukraine), to an assimilated, German-speaking Jewish family, Appelfeld was deprived of childhood by the Nazis’ genocidal schemes. Both of his parents were murdered in the labor camp to which they were sent, but the eight-year-old Appelfeld managed to escape from captivity and survive on his own in the woods for two years. It is understandable that the Israeli author, described by American Jewish novelist Philip Roth as “a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own,” would return again and again in his fiction to the scene of the century’s most horrific crime.
First published in Hebrew as Mesilat barzel in 1991, The Iron Tracks is the eleventh novel by Appelfeld to be translated into English. Like most of the others, it is set in Central Europe, site of the monstrous endeavor to eradicate the Jews. Its narrator, Erwin Siegelbaum, whose first name is the German version of the author’s Aharon, is a fifty-five-year- old Holocaust survivor who, four decades after liberation from a forced labor camp, continues to be obsessed with the Nazi atrocity. He spends most of each year revisiting towns in Austria that, though now virtually devoid of living Jews, remain rife with anti- Semitism. Every March 27, Siegelbaum boards the train in Wirblbahn, the location of the camp where both his parents died, and makes his way through twenty-one more stations, eventually completing his circular journey a few weeks before it is time to start the cycle all over again. His ostensible purpose is to seek out and then sell the vestiges of vanished Jewish culture—menorahs, kiddush cups, and, especially, sacred texts. His secret aim, though, is to track down and exact vengeance against the Nazi officer who ran the camp at Wirblbahn.
“The trains make me free,” proclaims Siegelbaum, extolling his rootless, itinerant life. Though trains were the principal means of transporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to their destruction during the Holocaust, Appelfeld’s Jewish narrator perversely celebrates the iron tracks of Central Europe; he also bribes railroad employees to play classical music, which is what the Nazis arranged to be performed in the death camps in order to distract the inmates from the slaughter. “Arbeit macht frei” (“work makes you free”) proclaimed a sign on the gate to Auschwitz, and Siegelbaum seems to submit to this perverse logic, savoring his own enslavement to the undeviating railway route and to the horrors of the past. Siegelbaum embraces his fate as a contemporary version of the Wandering Jew—the legend, promulgated by anti-Semites, of a miscreant who, for denying Jesus Christ, was condemned to eternal restlessness. He pretends to find pleasure in his agony, liberty in his ironclad compulsions.
Siegelbaum finds fleeting relief from the burdens of the past in an occasional glass of cognac or in brief erotic encounters. However, nothing can divert him from his route along the iron tracks. “My memory is my downfall,” he explains. “It is a sealed well that doesn’t lose a drop, to use an old expression. Nothing can deplete it.” Yet for someone so obviously and thoroughly dominated by the past, Siegelbaum is remarkably frugal in sharing recollections.
During the course of recounting one year’s journey north from Wirblbahn, the narrator provides fragmentary details about his earlier life. Readers slowly learn that, though his grandfather was a rabbi, his parents abandoned Jewish tradition. Refusing to allow Yiddish to be spoken in their house, they reared their son to speak Ruthenian and German. Ardent Communists, they dedicated themselves to organizing the Ruthenian peasants and workers, often in opposition to Jewish entrepreneurs. After taking part in the assassination of the head of the secret police, Siegelbaum’s mother withdrew from political activity and from her marriage to his father. The young Siegelbaum spent much of his childhood out of school on the road with his father, moving among hostile Ruthenians who never accepted his Marxist faith or regarded the missionary as anything but an alien Jew. It is both ironic and appropriate that Siegelbaum now replicates the rootless wandering of his...
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