Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2731
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 began.
First published: Kutonet veha-pasim, 1983 (English translation, 1983)
Type of work: Novel
Tzili, daughter of a Jewish family that tries to deny its Jewishness, sustains her tie with her historic past and survives the Holocaust.
In Tzili: The Story of a Life, Tzili Kraus is in some ways Appelfeld’s female counterpart. As the story opens, she is the least favored of her parents’ children because she, unlike her older siblings, is a poor student, something not to be encouraged in a Jewish-Austrian family with intellectual pretensions. The family, turning its back on its Jewish heritage, glories in its assimilation.
Tzili, a taciturn child, plays on the small plot behind her parents’ shop, ignored by parents and siblings. She is abused because of her poor academic performance and is viewed as retarded. Her parents employ an old man to give their unpromising child lessons in Judaism, but she does poorly even in these lessons.
When it is apparent that fascists are about to enter their town, the Krauses leave, but Tzili stays behind to guard their property. She sleeps through the slaughter that ensues, covered by burlap in a remote shed. Now Tzili, on her own, must live by her wits. Part of what Appelfeld seeks to convey is that her inherent instinct for survival will serve her better than her family’s intellectuality serves them. The family disappears, presumably victims of the Holocaust.
Appelfeld makes Tzili the symbol of a Judaism that survives through sheer pluck during a time of overwhelming difficulty. She consorts with prostitutes, works for peasants who physically abuse her, and struggles to hang onto what little hope there is. In time she links up with Mark, a forty-year-old who has left his wife and children in the concentration camp from which he escaped.
Like Appelfeld, Tzili looks Aryan and is relatively safe from identification as a Jew. She and Mark live by bartering, using some of his family’s clothing as a trading medium for food. By the time Mark, now guilt ridden, defects, the fifteen-year-old Tzili is pregnant. She trades the clothing that Mark has left behind for food. When this source of sustenance is exhausted, the pregnant Tzili finds work with peasants, some of whom beat her unmercifully.
With the armistice, Tzili joins a group of Jews freed from their concentration camps and goes south with them. She delivers her baby stillborn near Zagreb, but she survives—and with her survives the Judaism that nothing can extinguish. As the novel ends, Tzili and Linda, a woman who had earlier saved her life, are on a ship presumably heading for Palestine.
The theme of this story is survival in the broadest sense—the survival of one woman to symbolize the survival of the Jews and their philosophy. Tzili survives because she has not allied herself with the Jews who allowed assimilation or with the Ostjuden and their mercantile ambitions. Tzili lives because her instincts, her sheer intuition in time of crisis, serve her better than the artificial intellectuality of those who early shunned her and made her feel as though she was not part of her own family.
First published: Be-‘et uve-‘onah ahat, 1985 (English translation, 1990)
Type of work: Novel
Helga Katz, the daughter of a Jewish family in Vienna, suffers from an illness that leads the family to a healer in the Carpathian Mountains
In The Healer, the Katzes are bourgeois Jews who live in Vienna. When their daughter Helga begins to suffer from psychological problems, they seek help from every doctor available, but the treatment she receives brings no permanent improvement. Hearing of a healer in the Carpathian Mountains, the parents, Felix and Henrietta, decide they must take Helga there in a desperate attempt to restore her health. Their son Karl accompanies them when, in October, 1938, they take Helga to the Carpathians for six months of treatment.
The story’s ironies are not inherent but are a product of what readers know about the history of the period. This is the last year Eastern Europe will be free from a fascist tyranny that will lead to the annihilation of most of the people involved in Appelfeld’s story.
As the story develops, one realizes that the healer, the innkeeper, his Yiddish-speaking wife, and the Katzes themselves are marked for destruction. They perform their daily tasks, engage in their petty conflicts, fill their lives with small details that in the long run have little meaning. Hovering darkly above the entire narrative is the specter of what is soon to happen to Eastern Europe and to every Jew who lives there.
In this story, Appelfeld reiterates the notion of self-hatred that he is convinced helped lead to the downfall of European Jews during the Holocaust. This theme emerges in a discussion Henrietta has with the healer about Helga’s name. Henrietta had wanted to name her daughter Tsirl, after the girl’s grandmother, who was born in this rural region. She decided, however, that she could not give her daughter that name because of the ridicule that it would bring. Yet Henrietta, conditioned to the deceptions that Viennese society imposed upon its Jewish populace, does not rail stridently because she cannot give her daughter a Jewish name, saying merely that the name is “unusual” and would have caused people to laugh at the girl. In this exchange, Appelfeld clearly expresses the insidiousness of the Jews’ overwhelming repression of their traditions and their acceptance of the conditions that would ultimately annihilate them.
First published: Katerinah, 1989 (English translation, 1992)
Type of work: Novel
A retrospective look at the growing anti-Semitism in Europe preceding the Holocaust from the point of view of Katerina, a seventy-nine-year-old Ruthenian peasant.
Seventy-nine-year-old Katerina, imprisoned for many years during the Holocaust, has returned to her Ruthenian origins in a fiercely anti-Semitic territory that has belonged intermittently to Romania, Moldavia, and Ukraine. When Katerina returns following the Holocaust, Ruthenia has been purged of nearly all its former Jewish population. A Gentile, Katerina has been imprisoned for murdering Karil, a fiercely anti-Semitic hoodlum who murdered her infant son, Benjamin, years earlier.
A social outcast, Katerina feels a greater affinity to Jews than to Gentiles. Her murdered son was fathered by Sammy, a fifty-year-old Jewish alcoholic. Despite the anti-Semitism that causes people in Ruthenia to avoid any outward signs of being Jewish, Katerina seeks out a mohel, the Jewish dignitary who performs circumcisions as dictated by Mosaic law, to circumcise her son.
When Katerina goes back to Ruthenia after an absence of sixty-three years, she lives in a squalid hut on the property where she was born and where she lived during her early years. Katerina has been sheltered from the Holocaust by being imprisoned for the forty years that marked Adolf Hitler’s rise and eventual collapse.
The only suggestion of what has been happening during this period are the boxcars filled with Jews that rattle past Katerina’s prison on their way to concentration camps, the trains leading inevitably to places of doom. Some clothing and other items confiscated from the doomed Jews are eventually distributed to the prisoners, but the actual horrors of the Holocaust are never spelled out: Appelfeld depends upon the memories of his readers to supply the gruesome details of what happened to six million European Jews between 1939 and 1945.
In Katerina, Appelfeld creates parallel worlds, that of the prison where Katerina is incarcerated and that of the Holocaust from which she is removed by prison walls. Before Hitler’s rise to power, Katerina was employed by Jews to look after their children. These children taught her to read Hebrew and to speak Yiddish. When she was incarcerated for killing Karil, she was abruptly removed from the society in which the Holocaust took place.
The Story of a Life
First published: Sipur hayim, 1999 (English translation, 2004)
Type of work: Nonfiction
A succinct, well-controlled memoir in which Appelfeld relates the course of his life over seven decades, one of which includes the Holocaust.
Until age seven or eight, Aharon Appelfeld led a privileged existence in the Ukraine, the only child of two doting parents. Suddenly his comfortable world was shattered. His mother was shot. He did not see her die, but he heard her screams as she was murdered by anti-Semites. Soon other members of his family also were annihilated. Finally the young boy and his father were forced to march for two months to a displacement camp, where they were held as prisoners. They marched in mud so deep that young children who were part of the march drowned in it.
The boy was separated from his father, but he was resourceful enough to escape after three years into the Eastern European forests that surrounded the camp. There, usually alone, sometimes with another escapee, he stayed until the end of the war, living as best he could. In the forest, he spent considerable time reflecting on the life he had once lived, especially the happy parts of it, memories of holidays with his parents and grandparents in the Carpathians. In this memoir, he captures many elements of his past life in a dreamlike way, perhaps the product of his musings during his time spent hiding out in the forest.
Because many of the events of his early life are too horrible to remember, Appelfeld represses them, but reading between the lines, one can glean some of the horrors that he has endured. He spent his early years lonely and threatened by forces of which he had reason to be terrified.
At war’s end, the young man made his way to Palestine. He needed to learn Hebrew, a difficult task for him. His years of isolation had limited his ability to use language, and soon his use of German, his mother tongue, declined. He began to feel as though he had no language of his own, and with this feeling came a sense of his losing his identity. He also was learning to use language with the verbal economy for which his writing has received favorable notice.
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