Labeling anything “the best”—best chicken soup recipe, best American film, best jazz saxophonist—is obviously highly subjective. Debates about “the best” of anything tend to become contentious, as respective critics argue in support of their opinions, usually referencing historical contexts in order to justify selections. With the wealth of exceptional works of fiction and nonfiction centering on one of the darkest periods in human history, the deliberate, systematic extermination of over six million European Jews, it is similarly difficult to choose one book—fiction or nonfiction—that best depicts and seeks to understand the Holocaust. Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld’s 1978 (later published in English in 1980) novel Badenheim 1939 could be considered “the best” if one is particularly enamored with its allegorical, surrealistic style.
Badenheim 1939 takes place in an Austrian town in the period immediately following the Anschluss, the German occupation and annexation of Austria, and the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the “official” start of World War II. Europe’s Jews are very much in Germany’s crosshairs (as well as in the crosshairs of multiple Eastern European nations sympathetic to Hitler’s objective of ridding the continent of Jews), but denial and delusion remain prevalent among many Jewish communities, the citizens of which simply cannot comprehend the totality of the horrors that await them. In Appelfeld’s fictional resort town, home to an annual music festival, the reader is introduced to a conglomeration of mentalities, all of which existed to varying degrees among Germany’s and Austria’s Jewish populations.
Chief among Appelfeld’s characters is Dr. Langmann, whose secularism and devotion to his Austrian heritage will be his ticket, he believes, to safety from the coming disaster. Note, in the following passage, Langmann’s determination to insulate himself from Austria’s rampant anti-Semitism by wrapping himself in the nation’s flag. Having failed to date to convince the authorities that he is Austrian first and last, he cannot escape his Jewish heritage and struggles to convince his fellow citizens of his ethnic purity. Asked by another character, also a physician, of Langmann’s opinion of himself, the latter responds,
I am an Austrian born and bred, and the laws of Austria belong to me as long as I live.
To this, Shutz responds,
But you also happen to be a Jew, if I am not mistaken,
to which Langmann again responds,
A Jew. What does that mean? Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what it means?
Dr. Langmann’s futile effort at assimilation mirrored the experiences of many of Germany’s and Austria’s Jews. Convinced that their dedication to their nations would trump their religious identification, these individuals would be forced to confront the reality that, to the governments now in power, they were Jews first and foremost, and no amount of dedication and conviction would erase that fundamental, irrefutable fact.
Dr. Langmann’s situation is but one among many in Badenheim 1939. Appelfeld’s novel depicts characters that represent numerous psychological profiles, including the perennially paranoid Trude, wife of the town’s pharmacist, who cannot see any silver linings around the clouds hovering above. The novel’s reigning optimist, Dr. Pappenheim, eventually begins to acknowledge the hopelessness of the situation, a scene depicted with the appearance of an aging, wheelchair-bound rabbi, and a hoped-for return on the part of some to their native Poland—the next target of Germany’s territorial and genocidal aims. Confronted with the realization that there was nowhere to go and that the only world these people knew had turned against them, Appelfeld’s omniscient narrator observes,
Even Dr. Pappenheim’s optimism faded. The pastry shop owner waved his fists in the direction of the hotel, in fact, in the direction of Pappenheim, and vowed to kill him.
Badenheim 1939 is considered a great book about the Holocaust because it so perfectly captures the disintegration of once-vibrant communities in the face of murderous, state-sanctioned racism. It employs comedic devices and creates a surrealistic atmosphere. It depicts the proverbial "wandering Jews," a desperate people fleeing persecution only to find it where ever they go, with the ultimate manifestation of inhumanity looming right around the corner. Whether Badenheim 1939 is “the best” book about the Holocaust is open to debate.