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.
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, 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...
(The entire section is 4412 words.)