Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094
Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor of the Holocaust whose writing is stamped by a melancholy sense of the doom he managed to elude. He writes in Hebrew, but many of his novels and short stories have been translated into English. His writing has earned for him a significant and distinctive place in contemporary fiction. None of his texts directly alludes to the Holocaust’s appalling reality of suffering and deaths, but the horrors to come (or remembered) are a constant flickering on the horizon of his muted, compressed, austerely understated perspective.
Appelfeld’s hometown of Czernowitz, in the province of Bukovina, had belonged to the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when it became part of the newly created nation of Romania; it is now in Ukraine. Appelfeld was seven years old when German troops occupied Czernowitz. His mother was killed, and he and his father were transported to Ukraine and separately interned. In 1941, Appelfeld managed to escape from his camp. Being blond and able to speak Ukrainian, he was able to hide his Jewish identity from the Germans and anti-Semitic Ukrainian peasants. For three years he worked as a shepherd and farmhand, associating mostly with horse thieves and prostitutes. After the armistice, he joined a group of boys who wandered to southern Italy and from there migrated to British-mandate Palestine in 1946. There he worked on a farm in the mornings and learned Hebrew in the afternoons. From 1948 to 1950, he served in the Israeli army.
In 1950, Appelfeld passed the matriculation examination for admission to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After obtaining his B.A. and M.A. degrees, he studied briefly in Zurich and Oxford but then returned to Israel, where he eventually taught Jewish literature at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. He married an Argentine-born woman, and they had two sons and one daughter. In 1960, he chanced to see his father’s name on a list of immigrants due to arrive from Eastern Europe, and they were reunited.
In the late 1950’s, Appelfeld began to write—first poems, then stories, and finally short novels. It took him a long time to find his natural voice and subject matter. In a revealing interview with the American author Philip Roth, Appelfeld noted that Franz Kafka’s works, which he had discovered in the 1950’s, had influenced him more deeply than those of any other writer. The best known of Appelfeld’s translated novels is the first one published in the United States, Badenheim 1939, whose Hebrew title could more literally be translated as “Badenheim, resort town.” Badenheim is a Jewish spa near Vienna, where, in the summer of 1939, the Sanitation Department begins to register all vacationers. In the book’s final paragraph, the visitors are moved to a freight train and taken to their doom in the East. In the second translated novel, The Age of Wonders, the Holocaust overtakes a group of bourgeois, assimilated, unwary Jews in an isolated Austrian town. Again Appelfeld makes no explicit reference to historic events. As in a Kafka text, the ordeal descends inexplicably, irrationally, irresistibly. Here the horror continues, however, when the central character returns to the town after the end of the Holocaust and finds Jews still ashamed of their Jewishness and many non-Jews still anti-Semitic.
Tzili is a simpler tale than the first two, concerned with the wanderings of a slow-witted, East-European Jewish girl, which somewhat parallel Appelfeld’s own wanderings during and after World War II. Tzili survives the Holocaust almost inadvertently: She is a simpleton blessed with animal strength, almost mute, unable to feel profound grief, rage, or resentment over her brutalization. Yet her dull passivity somehow enables her to endure horrors that overwhelm more intelligent and introspective individuals. In The Retreat, Appelfeld returns to the provincial Austria of the late 1930’s. It is a cool, probing, and unsparing critique of Jewish attempts to assimilate themselves to the dominant gentile culture. The novel concludes flatly and forebodingly, with the reader aware that European Jewry’s encounter with tragic history is about to reach its apocalypse.
To the Land of the Cattails is another journey toward doom, with a divorced Jewish mother and her sensitive, adolescent son traveling to her parents’ home in Appelfeld’s native province of Bukovina. The mother and her parents disappear. The son then joins a cluster of Jews at a railroad station, waiting for the train that will carry them to their grim fate.
The Immortal Bartfuss is the first translated novel to focus on contemporary Israel. The protagonist, Bartfuss, has survived the Holocaust, now lives in Jaffa, and broods through an insular, self-isolated, emotionally numb existence. His wife is embittered, his daughter is mentally handicapped, and his relations with friends and acquaintances are wary and mistrustful. At the end, Bartfuss shows some signs of crossing over from alienation to fellowship and generosity.
In novels such as The Healer and Unto the Soul, Appelfeld also treats the life of the Jews in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. He shows the anti-Semitism his characters face and the kinds of self-denial and even self-loathing in which many engage in their attempts to become assimilated into European culture. In The Conversion, for example, a middle-aged Jew seeks to aid his career by converting to Christianity but rediscovers his heritage when a government proposal threatens the Jewish population. In For Every Sin, he examines the troubled lives of Holocaust survivors, exploring the problems they encounter in trying to adjust to a life of freedom and the difficulty they have learning to show emotions, including love. The Iron Tracks tells of a Holocaust survivor who travels Central Europe searching for Jewish artifacts and for revenge against the Nazi officer who murdered his parents.
Appelfeld has won many awards for his writing, including the Harold U. Ribelow Prize in 1987 and the Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service in 1990. His artistic aim has always been to produce fiction that meditates somberly and austerely on the precarious course of modern Jewish history. He struggles relentlessly with the culture of self-rejection to which all too many Jews succumbed in Eastern and Central Europe. In his flat, controlled, subdued, and fabulistic prose, which is never shrill, thundering, or moralizing, he presents scenes that pass a scorching judgment on both Jewish self-hatred and gentile homicide. As a Holocaust writer, he belongs to the company of such writers as Elie Wiesel, Jerzy Kosinski, and Primo Levi. Appelfeld has put his elegiac, dreamlike prose at the service of a stern moral vision. He expresses his sadness at the human capacity for victimization and cruelty in compelling images.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 362
Aharon Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina, Romania, in 1932, into an assimilated Jewish family whose language of choice was German. When Appelfeld was eight, he and his family were removed from their environment. His mother was taken by the Nazis, and he was separated from the rest of his family and shipped to a concentration camp in Transnistria, from which he escaped. After three perilous years of wandering through the forests of Eastern Europe with temporary stays with various refugees along the way, he joined the Russian army in 1944, at age eleven, in the Ukraine as a field cook. At twelve, Appelfeld joined a gang of war orphans who made their way south, living off the land. He was the youngest member and was to remain in touch with others of the gang. Upon their arrival in Italy, the gang members were befriended by a priest and lived for a time at his church, singing in the choir. After this interlude, the gang went on to Naples, where they met a Youth Aliya group and were persuaded to go to Israel. Appelfeld has related that the gang’s last night in Naples was spent at a brothel, where he sat up all night in a chair.
After his arrival in Israel in 1947, Appelfeld began writing poetry in his newly acquired language, Hebrew. The Jerusalem editor to whom he sent his poetry corrected it and rejected it for three years, after which time the editor instructed the poet not to send him any more poetry until he learned to write Hebrew. Ten years later, in 1960, Appelfeld has noted, he received an award for his poetry, the award named after the same editor, who had recently died.
In 1962, Appelfeld’s first short-story collection was published by an eccentric publisher who had not read the material but liked the author’s looks. The book, although not distributed to bookstores initially, enjoyed critical acclaim and started Appelfeld’s literary career as a short-story writer and novelist. A graduate of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Appelfeld teaches Hebrew literature at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, and makes his home in a suburb of Jerusalem.
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