A dominant theme of Jewish religious speculation through the centuries has been the meaning and purpose of suffering of the individual and of the people as a whole. It is the regnant issue of discourse, particularly in the past several decades, following the systematic destruction of one-third of world Jewry during World War II. In his short novel Tzili, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, has addressed this problem in a tale of an adolescent coming of age in a warped world.
Appelfeld, born in Czernovitz, Bukovina (now Chernovsty, U.S.S.R.) in 1932, was the child of a family no longer steeped in Jewish piety. At the outbreak of World War II, the author, age eight at the time, was placed in a concentration camp from which he escaped. He hid in the countryside for three years; afterward, he settled in Palestine. He has been a respected writer in Israel since 1959. In 1983, he was awarded the Israel Prize for Fine Literature; he is now achieving recognition in the United States.
The events of Appelfeld’s youth have shaped the themes of his later writings: assimilation and identity; Jew and Gentile; Western secularism and Eastern European faith; the morality of survivors’ behavior; maturity in a world of cruelty. He has expressed these themes in two other works, recently translated into English, Tor-ha-pela’ ot (1978; The Age of Wonders, 1981) and Badenheim ’ir nofesh (1980; Badenheim 1939, 1980) and in his memoir, Essays in the First Person (1979). Appelfeld’s outlook is summarized in one of those essays, “Beyond the Tragic”:With abysmal suffering as with death itself, the approach to it is in fleeing from it. But what can we do when every flight restores us in the end to ourselves, to our childhood, to the camps, and the ghettoes? Our sensibility fluctuates in this circle of flight and return, and until we exhaust it totally, we will not be free men.
Appelfeld writes a very sparse and terse Hebrew, the flavor of which has been preserved by the translator, Dalya Bilu. He keeps the details of events lean, allowing the reader only those details vital for the story and for penetrating the mind of Tzili. Indeed, Appelfeld echoes the style of ancient biblical narrative, which intentionally leaves much to the reader’s imagination.
Tzili is the youngest daughter, dull and homely, disheveled and neglected, of a large, impoverished Jewish family. The father suffers from a debilitating illness, the mother struggles to support the family, and the other children strive to achieve success through study and examinations, their ticket of admission to better society. Jewish religion or culture plays no significant part in the home. Only as a last resort, when Tzili fails in secular studies, do the parents hire an elderly tutor to give her the rudiments of Judaism.
With the outbreak of war, the family deserts Tzili to her fate. She roams the countryside, learns by experience the basic elements of survival, and gradually matures into a teenager capable of reasoned thought and personal relationships. By luck, she is mistakenly identified as the bastard daughter of a local prostitute. By accepting that identity as a moral outcast of society, she escapes detection as a racial outcast.
Tzili’s life is a constant wandering from one peasant home to another; she finds safety and shelter combined with persecution for her presumed sexual stain. She rooms with a former prostitute, Katerina, who had been the friend of the aforementioned harlot. Katerina both befriends and terrorizes Tzili because of her own memories of lost beauty and sexuality. Tzili meets Mark, another fugitive. They find common shelter in the woods; she provides for them both by bartering the clothes of his deserted wife and children for food and tobacco. She is loved for the first time in her life; he finds courage to live.
Mark disappears, and Tzili, now pregnant, continues to wander. She falls in with a column of survivors roving without aim. Gradually they realize that the war has ended, and they have survived; they march southward to seek a refuge. Tzili is befriended by a nameless merchant, who cares for her as she begins to have difficulties in her pregnancy. They arrive in Zagreb, and she is rushed to a hospital. Having lost her family, and then her lover, she now loses the baby. Even her newest friend is lost to her at the very same moment.
Tzili boards ship for the land of Palestine. She goes, not so much as a Zionist but as a...
(The entire section is 1871 words.)