Aharon Appelfeld World Literature Analysis
It has been said that most fiction is at its heart autobiographical. Appelfeld’s work is almost wholly a retelling of his life story. The overriding concern in nearly everything he has written is the Holocaust, although he never writes in detail about it. Rather, it lurks as a constant presence, the more horrible because it is not broached directly or in detail. Much as the horrors in Greek tragedies occur offstage, so are Appelfeld’s depictions of the horrors of the Holocaust left to his readers’ imaginations. Anyone with a sense of history can fill in the grisly details that Appelfeld purposely omits.
Although he draws from the same factual base for most of his work, his writing is not boringly repetitive. He is able constantly to reshape images and details in fresh and novel ways. He is a master of restraint and verbal economy, exhibiting a minimalism that allows him to make his most salient points vividly and poignantly through understatement.
Appelfeld exhibits a consistently controlled objectivity about matters that are, in essence, highly subjective. He writes about the Holocaust by not writing about the Holocaust. He depends upon his readers’ memories of its horrors to supply details too painful to relate overtly. He writes about what led to this cataclysm and about its aftermath or the gruesome events of this horrendous catastrophe that resulted in the deaths of some six million European Jews between 1939 and 1945.
Realizing that the dimensions of the Holocaust are so huge that they challenge the human imagination, Appelfeld elects to write around, rather than directly about, this historical event. He constantly searches for an answer to the recurrent question, “How could any such disaster have happened?”
He finds his answer in the major split he detects in Jewish society, one that surfaces in his stories. The rift lies between the intellectual Jews, who attached themselves to the mainstream culture of their societies by shedding most of the vestiges of their Judaic backgrounds and language, and the so-called Ostjuden, Jews from Eastern Europe, notably Poland, who were essentially philistines, merchants, and businessmen. They preserved Jewish traditions but were so bent on their remunerative business pursuits that they did not object to being excluded from the genteel and powerful social milieus of their countries. They traded exclusion for prosperous existences.
Both kinds of Jews were easily duped during the rise of Nazism in Germany and in Eastern Europe. The intellectuals wanted to be part of the mainstream culture, so they did not object when Nazism began to limit their freedoms. The Ostjuden, on the other hand, not wanting to jeopardize their financial security, overlooked the policies that gradually made them second-class citizens and, for the few who survived, stateless people.
The two classes of Jews that Appelfeld identifies have little use for each other, so the solidarity that might have been their salvation in the most critical time in their history was absent. It was into such an environment that Appelfeld was born. Among his earliest memories is one fundamental to Badenheim 1939, in which the Austrian resort being depicted is soon to be crowded with summer visitors. Dr. Pappenheim is to provide musical entertainment during the resort’s high season. Appelfeld uses Trude, the Jewish wife of the local pharmacist, who is not Jewish, metaphorically. She is manic-depressive, driven to distraction by her perception of the sick world that surrounds her and that she fears threatens the welfare of her daughter. There is about this book an air reminiscent of the atmosphere with which Thomas Mann infused Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), although the implications of the disease that Trude senses in the environment are much broader than were those posed by Mann’s novel.
In Badenheim 1939, one also finds persistent overtones of paranoia like those found in Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937), a work with which Appelfeld acknowledges familiarity. In Badenheim 1939, the Sanitation Department erects fences and raises flags, steadily becoming an increasingly authoritarian factor in the lives of citizens, particularly of Jewish citizens. Against a backdrop of Rainer Maria Rilke’s death poetry comes an announcement that all Jews must register with the Sanitation Department, presumably as a first step toward “sanitizing” the country of its Jewish citizens.
The intellectual Jews have disagreements with the Ostjuden about who has to register, while the Sanitation Department works covertly to collect dossiers on all the Jews in Badenheim. The department forbids entry into or exit from the town and quarantines the Jews who are within it. Appelfeld writes of the “orange shadow” that hangs over the town, a symbol that he uses frequently. Trude’s delusions become realities as the Jews become a marked people. When trains arrive to relocate the captive Jews, Dr. Pappenheim speculates optimistically that they probably will not be taken too far because the boxcars in which they are to be transported are so filthy. The hapless Jews board the train, still thinking that their deportation to Poland is a transitional step, trying to minimize the import of what faces them.
Similar themes pervade most of Appelfeld’s writing. He is obsessed with what the decadence of European Jews resulted in once Adolf Hitler came to power. Both groups of Jews about which he writes, the intellectual Jews and the Ostjuden, lapsed into decadence and sold out for their own gain. Both groups, in Appelfeld’s view, felt an underlying self-hatred as Jews, ever alienated, ever shunned. In this self-hatred, fed by the dominant society, were the seeds of the destruction that was inflicted upon most Jews east of France from the late 1930’s until the end of World War II.
Appelfeld writes of the dispossessed, the abandoned, those who hide, fearing for their lives, those who run from all that is dear to them because running is their only hope. He writes about dead mothers and unsympathetic fathers, about indifferent societies and vindictive institutions within those societies. Mostly, however, Appelfeld writes about complacence and the price it exacts in situations like that brought about by fascist rule in the decade between 1935 and 1945. He places some of the responsibility for the Holocaust squarely on the shoulders of a passive Jewish community that might possibly have saved itself had it rallied in a united way when the ethnic outrages of the period...
(The entire section is 2731 words.)