Aharon Appelfeld Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4412

Careful analysis of Aharon Appelfeld’s writing suggests that his works consist of detailing different elements of one story, his own story. The seemingly autobiographical aspects of these novels, however, reveal Appelfeld’s unusual ability to retell visions and motifs in ever-changing and fascinating literary hues and designs. Appelfeld himself has said, It’s usually pointed out that I draw on my own experience for my stories and novels. I acknowledge that. Yet I have no interest in writing autobiography.Memory can’t create a story; the author must. So I objectify my own experience by recreating it in the stories of others.

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As noted above, critics have also referred to Appelfeld as one of the great producers of Holocaust literature. Although accurate, that judgment is ironic, for Appelfeld never specifically names or addresses events of the Holocaust in his writing. Nevertheless, in his sparsely written recounting of the pre-Holocaust period, the author evokes the horrors to come by stirring the memories and imagination of those who read with a historical perspective. In like manner, in his stories about those who survived the years of hiding or after being “sucked into” railroad cars, both recurring motifs in Appelfeld’s works, he forces the reader’s imagination to develop the pictures he never paints but that are responsible for the broken, imperfect souls of the post-Holocaust experience. Appelfeld himself has spoken of this technique: “You can never understand the meaning of the Holocaust. You can just come to the edges of it. If you wrote about it directly, you’d end up trivializing it.”

The novels discussed below, in fact, can be placed into two simple categories: those that describe pre-Holocaust European Jewish society and begin and end with no hope for the future (Badenheim 1939 and The Retreat) and those that seem to indicate that the return to roots, the finding of the true secrets of Jewishness, permits the survival of youth into the post-Holocaust period (The Age of Wonders, Tzili, To the Land of the Cattails). All these novels share a common base of retold experience, literary techniques, motifs, themes, and symbols, woven into magic by a masterful storyteller. The retold experience is Appelfeld’s own life and its connection with the Holocaust. Although, as stated earlier, the Holocaust is never named and its too-familiar scenes of horror are never drawn, the dreamlike superimposition of allegory and realism immerses the reader in visions of impending horror. The reader’s historical memory and imagination fill in what Appelfeld’s novels do not provide, especially since the understated, simple, spare, and matter-of-fact text demands these additions.

Appelfeld’s images and themes are recurrent. The most devastating images recall, with chilling understatement and deceptively simple, direct language, the naïve willingness of European Jews to accept resignedly the events, indignities, and humiliations that preceded the Holocaust, and their destructive self-abnegation and anti-Jewish behavior. Appelfeld accents these characteristics by emphasizing stereotypical differences between pre-Holocaust Jews and non-Jews. Jews were timid figures whose long faces were pale from lack of outdoor activity and whose bodies were undeveloped by physical exercise. On the one hand were the intellectual Jews who had assimilated into Western European culture, abandoning their traditions and the Yiddish language; on the other hand were the Ostjuden (Jews from the east, Poland in particular), who lacked refinement and who were known for their single-minded pursuit of mercantile occupations and their observance of traditional ways. The two groups disliked each other intensely. Travel, trains, disdaining intellectuals, culpable Ostjuden, forests, abandoned children, lost mothers, ugly fathers, unpleasant Jewish characteristics, and the coarse, peasantlike behavior of non-Jews—these are the recurring motifs that Appelfeld weaves into an allegorical but realistic fictional world that intensifies the reader’s vision of the Holocaust. These recurrent themes testify to the ugliness of prewar Jewish society, its emphasis on assimilation and self-hate, its rejection of the essence of Judaism, its inability to “raise a hand” against its oppressors. Opposed to this are the themes of inner peace, salvation, and even survival achieved through the finding and acceptance of the secrets of basic Judaism.

Recurrent symbols and motifs include forests and nature—havens in Appelfeld’s own life, symbolizing peace and safety. Trains and other forms of transportation, by contrast, lead to uncertain destinations usually invoking premonitions of the impending Holocaust. Love of books and humanizing education, as opposed to rigidly enforced study in the Austrian gymnasium, indicate characters’ acceptance of Judaism and humanism, whereas descriptions of people eating usually indicate coarse, peasantlike cruelty to man and beast and are associated with non-Jews.

Although the novels discussed here are based on retold experience and recurrent themes, symbols, and motifs, each also presents a different view of the same problems, thus affording a multifaceted, in-depth analysis of factors preceding the Holocaust. Although readers can share Appelfeld’s stories, they are also left to complete them and draw their own conclusions.

Badenheim 1939

Badenheim 1939, the first of Appelfeld’s novels to be translated into English, recounts with chillingly understated simplicity the naïve response by a broad spectrum of Jews to unmistakable warning signals just prior to the Holocaust. By not using historical terminology for the victims, the victimizers, or the impending events, Appelfeld increases the horror of his story: The reader is wrenched by historical knowledge of the impending disaster posed against the unawareness of the victims and their almost giddy efforts to ignore what is clear.

The book opens in 1939 as the Austrian resort town of Badenheim slips from sluggish winter into tentative spring, bringing with it a mélange of sybaritic visitors who wait for the entertainment to begin. Dr. Pappenheim, the “impresario,” is responsible for providing summer-long entertainment for the guests, many of whom are regulars at Badenheim. To introduce his major theme of willful Holocaust unawareness, Appelfeld introduces the character of Trude, wife of the pharmacist. Like an unwelcome Elijah, Trude is consumed by what the others view as a manic-depressive illness that allows her no peace, as she is obsessed by her vision of a “transparentpoisoned and diseased world” in which her absent daughter is “captive and abused” by her non-Jewish husband. She also describes the resort-goers as “patients in a sanitorium.”

Additional disharmonies surface when Dr. Pappenheim is disappointed by the musicians’ greed and he himself displays melancholic longing for his Ostjuden Polish roots. Even more ominous is the increasingly authoritative role taken by the Sanitation Department, which “took measurements, put up fences and planted flags” as “porters unloaded rolls of barbed wire, cement pillars, and all kinds of appliances.” Characteristically, the naïve vacationers interpret these preparations as signs of a particularly successful summer festival; otherwise, “why would the Sanitation Department be going to all this trouble?” The palpably clear answer is accentuated by the appearance of the twin performers, “tall, thin and monkish,” whose forte is the death poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and who “rehearsed all the time with morbid melody throbbing in their voices.”

The themes of assimilation and levels of Jewishness surface when a “modest announcement” appears on the notice board, saying that all citizens who are Jews must register with the Sanitation Department by the end of the month. Heated discussions among the guests about who must comply, based upon class distinctions that elevate the importance of Austrian Jews and denigrate the Ostjuden, increase strife.

All the while, the Sanitation Department has continued its work. It now holds detailed records of each person’s heritage and begins to display inviting posters of Poland. Concurrently, the department prohibits access to or exit from the town, stops all incoming and outgoing mail, and closes the resort pool. As fear and despair begin to envelop the people, “an alien orange shadow gnawed stealthily at the geranium leaves,” and the Jews are put into quarantine.

What has been considered up to this time as disease or infection, an unnamed fear in some hearts such as Trude’s, becomes real. Delusions disappear and weaker people ignore basic social rules as they loot the pharmacy and consume all the food. The musicians steal the hotel dishes, and even the dogs become uncontrollable. At the same time, another force begins to operate in the face of chaos. With the common experience of deprivation and fear of the unknown future, the edges of dissension among the people start to smooth and closer common bonds draw the captives together.

Badenheim 1939 ends with the recurring Appelfeld image of trains and journeys signaling a hopeless future. Still uncomprehending, the victims refuse to recognize the facts, clinging to the illusion that deportation to Poland is only a “transition.” Old and young Austrian Jews, Ostjuden, and those who are part Jewish are “all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel [into] four filthy freight cars.” The last irony is voiced by Dr. Pappenheim, who observes, “If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.”

The Age of Wonders

Badenheim 1939 re-creates Appelfeld’s memory of the European pre-Holocaust world, but the narrator’s voice is objective; the characters in this novel cannot be linked directly with Appelfeld or with those around him. The Age of Wonders, Appelfeld’s second book in English translation, on the other hand appears to be closer to fictionalized biography; in it Appelfeld’s own feelings are more visible. The Age of Wonders also affords the reader a view of both the pre-Holocaust and the post-Holocaust periods, and as a result it is a more complete and stronger novel than its predecessor.

In the first part of The Age of Wonders, the “ugly orange fog” felt in Badenheim 1939 is an omnipresent, identifiable antagonist. The viscous, threatening suffocator of the pleasure-seeking vacationers in Badenheim is a major character in The Age of Wonders as it envelops and destroys Austrian-Jewish lives in pre-Holocaust Vienna. Repeated evocations of Jewish decadence prior to the war enforce the realization that the horror could perhaps have been averted had the Jews reversed the course of assimilation and self-hatred.

The three-year prewar history of a doomed intellectual family in Vienna is reviewed and dispassionately related by the only child, whose name, Bruno, is not revealed until the second part of the book. The action begins with the mother and Bruno traveling by train from their last carefree summer vacation in a forested, “little known retreat.” The first clear indication of the impending Holocaust comes when all the passengers who are non-Christian by birth are commanded to leave the train and register during an unscheduled stop at an old sawmill.

Appelfeld’s recurring theme of Jewish alienation from Jews is introduced when Bruno’s relatives come to celebrate his eleventh birthday. Cousin Charlotte, who has been fired from her position as an actor with the National Company, represents the reality of Jews being ostracized from the Austrian culture and also Jewish self-delusion (she acts foreign roles). Uncle Carl Landman, an attorney, expresses his outrage at Jewish “vulgarity”; some Jews refuse the customs of the prevailing culture. Bruno’s Uncle Salo represents the Jewish merchant who flirts with Gentile women and is despised by the intellectuals, such as Landman and Bruno’s father. The party ends with bitter debate about what Jewish life should be and displays of hate among the guests; the gathering represents a microcosm of Jewish life before the Holocaust and seems to indicate that Appelfeld sees these divisions as a precursor to the Holocaust.

Bruno’s father, a nationally known and acclaimed author/intellectual, despises observant Jews and the Ostjuden entrepreneurs, whom he charges with “dark avarice” and whom he believes “should be wiped off the face of the earth, because they ruin everything they touch.” Speaking of his own heritage, he says, “My Jewishness means nothing to me.” Ironically, the father’s anti-Semitism, which is a theme in his own works, is used against him by another, similarly minded Jew. Michael Taucher destroys the author’s reputation and career via repeated attacks in the press. Supported by non-Jewish editors who allow Taucher all the space he can fill, the critic finally writes, about Bruno’s father, “the Jewish parasite must be weeded out,” and then, having served his purpose, he himself disappears.

Another important thread that unwinds as months go by is the high attrition rate among traditionally observant Jews, as the older generation dies off and the younger traditionalists feel the scorn of their contemporaries. When Bruno’s Aunt Gusta dies and is buried according to traditional Jewish rites, Bruno describes the scene as “ugly and shameful.”

Kurt Stark, a sculptor and longtime friend of Bruno’s father, illustrates the almost militant Jewish opposition to the contemporary traditionalists who wanted to preserve religious observance and practices. In a theme shown in several of Appelfeld’s works, notably To the Land of the Cattails, Stark, the son of a Jewish mother and an Aryan father, seeks refuge from his “tortured [and] cruel perplexities” by conversion to Judaism. In spite of all the difficult hurdles, Stark reaches his goal, but he and his life are horribly altered. After his circumcision, he barely exists in the Paul Gottesman Almshouse for Jews, a dreadful place devoid of spiritual or physical beauty and inhabited by old, dying men. Stark has become a stereotypical Appelfeld Jew—retiring, weak, pale, and unhealthy—whereas before his conversion he had been the stereotypical Aryan—strong, robust, and physically aggressive.

With the family’s growing sense of isolation and their increasingly frequent contacts with homeless, dispossessed Jews, Bruno’s father seeks escape by appealing to non-Jewish friends. He is representative of the male characters in Appelfeld’s works, most of whom are neither strong nor admirable. Bruno’s mother, on the other hand, like Tzili in Tzili and Toni and Arna in To the Land of the Cattails, gathers strength and courage to do what she can to maintain order, even after her husband abandons the family and escapes to Vienna and a non-Jewish woman. In one of the most violent scenes in Appelfeld’s fiction available in English, all of the town’s Jews are herded into and locked in the synagogue, where the frenzied prisoners decide that the rabbi, who represents Judaism, is the source of their misery and beat him almost to death.

Book 1 of The Age of Wonders shares the hopelessness of Badenheim 1939 but appears to place the blame for the coming disaster on the Jewish people themselves, their assimilation, and their self-chosen alienation from Judaism. In Bruno and his family can be seen the autobiographical elements of Appelfeld’s own separation from mother and father prior to the Holocaust, and the images of Bruno’s summer vacations in the forest as restorative and saving are unmistakably autobiographical.

The darkness of book 1 is mitigated by book 2, which introduces hope through survival. Book 2 takes up the same motif with which book 1 begins and ends: Bruno is again on a train, but now he is alone, returning thirty years later to the town of his birth, Knospen, Austria. Bruno comes back with memories of the war years mentioned only in reference to towns—Auschwitz and Thereisenstadt—with the burden of a wife and a failing marriage in Jerusalem, and with an inherited and continuing dislike of Jews as part of his emotional foundation. Although his reason for returning is unclear to both Bruno and the reader, what Bruno experiences is depressingly morbid. Bruno finds only the memories of his town of birth and revisited aspects of the countryside pleasant. In contrast, memories of people and places such as school, perhaps some of them once pleasant, become unwholesome and diseased in revisitation.

The Henrietta Bar, which Bruno frequents and leaves “dull with drink,” reveals unpleasant postwar realities. As bizarre as the four swarthy Singapore midgets who entertain bar patrons, not with their talent but with their freakish appearance and wild dancing, are the strange, half-breed waitress and her friends, half-Jewish misfits who have no real identity or past other than their existence. Among these Bruno discovers a half cousin, a bastard daughter of his Uncle Salo. Finally, he confronts old Brum, a prototype of prewar denial and cowardice who echoes Bruno’s father. Demanding that Bruno leave because he is stirring up “evil spiritsJews againthe old nightmare,” Brum arouses unexpected violence in Bruno by stating, “My hatred for Jews knows no bounds.” Bruno hits the Jewish anti-Semite in the face and displays no emotion except vengeance as the old man, a both real and symbolic specter of the past, lies bleeding on the ground.

Never going back to see what happens to Brum, Bruno quietly leaves town early the next morning. The phrase “It’s all over” echoes in his mind as epiphany relieves Bruno of a heavy emotional burden. Ironically, even though the Jews Bruno meets on his return initially repel him, he becomes increasingly tolerant of their weaknesses. In a total reversal, Bruno becomes violent against the disease of prewar Jews—the same one he himself had displayed—Jewish anti-Semitism.

Unlike Badenheim 1939, The Age of Wonders reflects hope and rebirth after death. Bruno, by surviving and returning to his roots, finds truth and reaffirms the faith of his long-dead Aunt Gusta. He becomes a vibrant, unafraid, and robust Jew. The antithesis of prewar stereotypical Jews who hated themselves, their heritage, and would not raise their hands against attack, Bruno undergoes conversion and remains strong and vital.


Appelfeld’s third novel to appear in English translation, Tzili, continues in the pattern of The Age of Wonders with a strong autobiographical element, pre- and post-Holocaust segments, and the tempering of pessimism by the survival of youth. Appelfeld’s use of allegory in Tzili sets it apart from his other novels. The minimalist approach places an even greater responsibility on the reader to interpret meaning while multiple levels of interpretation are added to each word and scene. This approach makes Tzili possibly the most rewarding reading of the novels discussed here.

As a young child, Tzili is ignored by her invalid father and shopkeeper mother and is left during summer days to sit alone behind the shop in the dirt and ashes. Feebleminded and unable to learn when she is finally sent to school at age seven, Tzili is scolded by her parents, who are extremely anxious that their children attain high academic goals, and she is ridiculed by her Gentile classmates, who are particularly gleeful at the spectacle of a Jewish child who cannot learn. The parents engage an old Jewish tutor to instruct their youngest child in Jewish customs and laws, but Tzili can manage only to repeat the Judaic formulas drilled into her by rote. Her tutor appreciates the irony, wondering “why it had fallen to the lot of this dull child to keep the spark [of Judaism] alive.” Indeed, only the tutor’s visits keep the child from total wretchedness. Unintentionally, as a last resort, her parents have unwittingly provided Tzili with the source of her future salvation as well as her present strength—a strong faith.

When troops appear just outside town, the family deserts Tzili; after charging her to “take care of the property,” the rest of them flee to what they mistakenly believe will be safety. Tzili survives an undescribed night of massacre, but her family is never mentioned again. Indeed, Tzili repeatedly escapes death as if she were divinely protected. In a long, circular journey that never takes her far from her birthplace, Tzili moves from childhood to young adulthood. Her survival is both a celebration of indomitable human courage and an allegorical reference to the undying spirit of Judaism, as she survives as if by miracles a series of deadly episodes during the Holocaust years.

When the war ends, Tzili is fifteen, pregnant, and abandoned by her lover-companion, Mark. She falls into the company of liberated but disturbingly petty, quarreling Jews. They ignore Tzili’s pain and their own as they travel, but, surprisingly, when Tzili’s fragile condition prevents her from keeping up with the group, a fat, former cabaret dancer demands that the group stop for the girl, and they do. A stretcher is constructed, upon which Tzili is carried aloft for the rest of the long journey amid “a rousing sound, like pent-up water bursting from a dam.” The stretcher bearers are joined by the entire group, who roar, “We are the torch bearers.” Tzili, symbol of the Jewish spark noted by her former tutor, unites the group, gives them strong purpose, and helps them survive. Tzili’s destiny ultimately leads her aboard a ship bound for Palestine, perhaps with others of the group. While the fate of her assimilated parents and intellectually superior siblings is unknown, the “chosen” child is saved for entrance to the Chosen Land, Palestine.

The Retreat

In The Retreat, except for the restorative nature of the forest and other recurring motifs, Appelfeld seems to eliminate the strong autobiographical elements seen in The Age of Wonders, Tzili, and To the Land of the Cattails as well as their theme of youth and survival. Instead, this book is an echo of Badenheim 1939, concentrating, in a very different environment, on the ugliness of the pre-Holocaust Jewish milieu and the assimilation and breakdown of Jews and their community because of self-hatred. There is no hint of a future, no youth present who, like Tzili, can be viewed as a living symbol of the enduring spirit of Judaism. The chilling shadow of the Holocaust comes closer as thenarrative continues, and the only hope offered is that the Jews in the Retreat, an isolated mountaintop house that has been established as an “Institute for Advanced Study,” will help one another and will not abandon anyone; in a time of extremes, they discover that they need one another for support and comfort.

Lotte Schloss, the novel’sprotagonist, is the listener among the other castoffs at the Retreat; she is a prototype of the metamorphosis and becomes an important part of the group’s final support system. The “great Balaban,” founder of the institute, envisions his Retreat as a place where Jews can learn to divest themselves of their ugly Jewish characteristics and become more like the Gentiles around them. Thwarted in this goal, Balaban dies unmourned, but ironically he has prepared the members of the group to shift for themselves, help one another, and therefore survive.

At the end of The Retreat a faint glimmer of hope for survival through unity appears, but Appelfeld destroys any possibility of salvation: “At night, of course, people were afraid. But they helped one another. If a man fell or was beaten, he was not abandoned.” Unity is all the group has.

To the Land of the Cattails

Appelfeld returns to autobiographical material in his fifth novel published in English, To the Land of the Cattails. Its blend of allegory and realism explores what Appelfeld has called a “a love story between a mother and a son,” and it ends, as did Appelfeld’s own childhood, with the mother lost and leaving her son to find his own way to Jewishness. Although this narrative ends before the Holocaust is at its height, it shares with The Age of Wonders and Tzili a sense of fulfillment in the characters’ acceptance of their Jewishness, and it marks a further development of Appelfeld’s almost mystical ability to evoke the Holocaust while never naming it or describing it concretely.

To the Land of the Cattails, interspersing flashbacks and current happenings, recounts a two-year journey during which the two major characters undergo dramatic metamorphoses. In the autumn of 1938, thirty-four-year-old Toni Strauss (née Rosenfeld) and her fifteen-year-old son, Rudi, begin a long journey by horse and carriage from the bustling city of Vienna back to the mother’s birthplace of Dratscincz, Bukovina, on the river Prut. Rudi resembles his father, a Gentile “through and through,” in appearance and interests. Toni is fearful lest her son also become callous and brutal and abandon her, as his father had fourteen years earlier. She therefore resolves to return to her parents, whom she has not seen since she eloped at seventeen with August Strauss, a Gentile. In addition to fulfilling her own yearning to return from exile, Toni also has a “strong wish for [Rudi] to be Jewish.”

Although Rudi considers himself a Jew, Toni tells him at the beginning of their journey, “Certainly you are a Jew, but you need a few more things, not many, not difficultyou are a Jew in every fibre of your being. And here, in these regions, you will learn the secret easily.” Thus the story of Rudi’s metamorphosis begins. In the course of their long journey, however, Rudi returns to his Gentile roots rather than becoming more Jewish. Toni watches the transformation with dread. Her own total commitment to Judaism accomplished, she decides to go on alone to her parents’ home. Rudi soon follows after her, but his mother is gone, having been “easily sucked in” with other compliant Jews to waiting railway cars and an unknown future.

Rudi wanders off, blaming his mother for leaving him and angry that she did not wait for him, but he suddenly understands what he has guessed, that his mother is in danger. That understanding begins the final stage of Rudi’s metamorphosis, achieved through his friendship with Arna, a thin, thirteen-year-old Jewish girl who also has been separated from her family. Arna believes in God and teaches Rudi the ways of observant Jews; she has brought him a “kind of hidden promise.” Rudi falls critically ill, and as Arna takes care of him, he wishes for death. During his illness, he hears Arna intone “Hear, O Israel.”

Rudi learns the Jewish secrets well, so well that his physical presence changes to match his spiritual change. His gait, which was once swaggering and self-assured, is different after his illness. In fact, Rudi is so different that “he himself did not know how much he had changed.” As the narrative ends and the transformation is complete, Rudi and Arna stand at a railroad station watching a train approach: “It was an old locomotive, drawing two old carsthe local apparently. It went from station to station, scrupulously gathering up the remainder.” Hope remains that Rudi and Arna, young, vigorous, and secure in their Jewishness, will somehow survive the ensuing Holocaust years and share what they have learned with a future generation.

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Aharon Appelfeld World Literature Analysis