Aharon (also rendered “Aron”) Appelfeld was born on February 16, 1932, in Czernowitz, Romania, which is now Chernovtsy, Ukraine. During the period between the two world wars, most of the Jews in his birthplace were assimilated. The Appelfeld family spoke German and made little effort to preserve their Jewish identity.
Czernowitz was overrun by German forces in 1939. Before long, the occupying intruders killed Appelfeld’s mother. The boy and his father, along with other members of his family, soon were sent to the Ukraine, where father and son were interned separately in the Transnistria concentration camp. The train on which the frightened, blond-haired boy was taken to Transnistria was to become a pervasive symbol in Appelfeld’s writing. Alone and too young to understand the political implications of his displacement, Appelfeld was sucked into the forbidding freight car like a grain of wheat, a symbol that pervades his later writing, obviously reflecting the helplessness the boy felt at having his life snatched away from him for reasons that he failed to comprehend, a helpless object in the hands of a malevolent government.
For the next three years, Appelfeld lived at the whim of his captors in a setting in which people dislocated solely on the basis of their ethnicity were robbed of their dignity, their self-determination, and, in many cases, their lives. The sensitive youth saw how cheap life became in such situations. Yet he thought deeply about how his people could have come to such a pass in a country that was seemingly civilized. Such musing became the basis for his later writing about how European Jews, by encouraging assimilation and by acceding without protest to the growing inroads the government was making upon them, probably were unwitting parties to their own destruction.
When Appelfeld escaped from Transnistria in 1943, he did not emerge into a welcoming society. The Ukrainian peasants among whom he found himself were as anti-Semitic as the Nazis who controlled the area. Appelfeld, however, used his blond hair as a badge of Aryan lineage, albeit a misleading one. He...
(The entire section is 870 words.)