Aharon Appelfeld Appelfeld, Aharon (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Aharon Appelfeld 1932–-

Rumanian-born Israeli short story writer, novelist, essayist, and poet.

A survivor of the Holocaust, Appelfeld uses muted symbolism and understated, parabolic prose to examine the effects of anti-Semitism upon assimilated European Jews. Although Appelfeld avoids commenting directly on the politics and horrors associated with the Third Reich, his fiction—often set in Nazi-occupied locales immediately prior to World War II—poignantly foreshadows the Holocaust to come. Appelfeld's protagonists usually reject or minimize their commitment to Judaism in order to assimilate with European society; confronted with anti-Semitic attitudes, they experience feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, and self-hatred.

Biographical Information

Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Rumania, in 1932. The son of bourgeois Polish Jews, he was only eight years old when his family fell victim to the Holocaust. While on vacation in the country, Nazi troops shot and killed his mother, and Appelfeld and his father were sent to a labor camp in Transnistria. He escaped in 1943 and survived the remainder of World War II hiding and scavenging in the forests of the Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Upon immigrating to Palestine in 1947, he wrote poetry in several languages before deciding to write fiction exclusively in Hebrew. He attended Hebrew University and served in the Israeli army. He has remained in Israel, teaching Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University and writing both fiction and nonfiction.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Appelfeld's early literary output includes many short stories addressing the effect of the Holocaust on Jews; several of these pieces appeared in In the Wilderness. His first novella translated into English, Badenheim 1939, is set in an Austrian spa in the summer of 1939. It depicts a group of people on vacation, many of nominal Jewish faith, who are forced to register with uniformed agents of the “Sanitation Department.” After the entire community is revealed to be Jewish, the visitors blandly accept their removal to Poland. In Appelfeld's Tor hapela’ot (The Age of Wonders), a young boy watches as his father, an assimilated, anti-Semitic Austrian of Jewish descent, is destroyed by his inability to conceal his background. Although the boy survives the Holocaust and is invited to resurrect his father's writings, he chooses to embrace Judaism rather than accept his father's hatred for his own race.

Critical Reception

Appelfeld is considered one of Israel's most distinguished novelists and short fiction writers. Critics praise his deft exploration of Jewish themes, especially the question of what it means to be Jewish in the modern age. In fact, the characters in his stories usually question or hide their commitment to Judaism in order to assimilate with European society; commentators have frequently considered the social implications of this theme. Moreover, the autobiographical nature of Appelfeld's fiction has been a rich subject for critical study. His work has received high praise from British and American critics and elicited frequent comparison to the works of Franz Kafka for its hallucinatory prose style and detached characters.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

*‘Ashan (short stories) 1962

Kefor ‘al ha’arets (novella) 1965

In the Wilderness (short stories) 1965

Bekomat hakarka’ (short stories) 1968

Adenei hanahar (short stories) 1971

Ke’ishon ha’ayin [Like the Pupil of an Eye] (novella) 1972

Shanim veha’ot Years and Hours (novella) 1974–1975

Tor hapela’ot [Age of Wonders] (novella) 1978

Badenheim ‘ir nofesh [Badenheim 1939] (novella) 1979

To the Land of the Cattails [also published as To the Land of the Reeds] (novella) 1986

**The Immortal Bartfuss (novella) 1988

**Tzili: The Story of a Life (novel) 1983

The Retreat (novel) 1984

Ba’et uve’onah achat [The Healer] (novel) 1985

Writing and the Holocaust (nonfiction) 1988

**As For Every Sin (novel) 1989

Katerinah [Katerina] (novel) 1989

Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth (lectures) 1994

Unto the Soul (novel) 1994

The Conversion (novel) 1998

The Iron Tracks (novel) 1998

*Translated as “Ashan” in In the Wilderness, 1965.

**These works were originally published in Hebrew as Bartfus ben ha’almavet, Kutonet yeha-pasim, and Al kol hapesha‘im.

Alan Mintz (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Appelfeld World,” in Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, Columbia University Press, 1984, pp. 203–38.

[In the following essay, Mintz explores the defining characteristics of Appelfeld's work.]

[Uri Zvi] Greenberg and Appelfeld are the two great writers of the Holocaust in Hebrew literature, yet their imaginative worlds are vastly different, so different in fact as to challenge the usefulness of notions of a shared language or poetics of a Holocaust literature. Temperament aside, the difference between Greenberg and Appelfeld comes down to a basic divergence in biographical circumstance: the situation of the bystander to catastrophe as against the situation of the survivor of catastrophe. Describing Greenberg as a bystander should indicate that the term implies nothing of aloofness. Who could have been more engaged than Greenberg? His poetry foresaw, preached, grieved, broke down, lamented, memorialized. Yet all these modes of engagement reflect the same truth about the nature of engagement itself: implied is an experiencing self and an event that stands apart from it. Although the event may engulf the self and the self may incorporate the event or integrate aspects of it, the apartness remains as a distance to be crossed. Greenberg was a major poet before the Holocaust, and even if afterward the poetry had been transformed beyond recognition—which was far from the case—that transformation would still be the result of an encounter between a preexistent body of verse and a cataclysmic event.

For Appelfeld as survivor, the Holocaust was the founding event of the self. It is the event which forms him, creating a world with its own conditions and its own laws. The survivor lives inside it. There is no distance to be overcome, and also no possibility of leaving. It was necessary to reach outside for something which the world of catastrophe lacked entirely: a language and a poetics. For Appelfeld there was no preexistent literary language or literary career; his adoption of Hebrew and the fictive techniques of Kafka and Agnon has the force of a borrowing naturalized for his own purposes. Similarly, the place of Jewishness in the works of the two writers: Greenberg's poetry was grounded in (among other things) the great mythic structures of Judaism; when he faced the Holocaust it was in terms of these categories that a response was fashioned. For Appelfeld an awareness of Judaism as a religious and textual system came after the fact. Although Jewishness, in the sense of Jewish birth, is one of the constitutive conditions of his world, theological and mythic structures are irrelevant or, at most, a ghostly residue.

Appelfeld was born in 1932 in Chernowitz to a German-speaking assimilated Jewish family. The war years coincided with his boyhood between the ages of eight and fourteen. He was a prisoner in camps and escaped, and knew the insides of monasteries as temporary refuges. Most of these years were spent in flight and in hiding in the forest of the Carpathians. Toward the end of the war Appelfeld served as a mess boy for Russian units, and eventually found his way to the DP transit camps on the Italian coast, and from there to Palestine in 1946. In an important sense, Appelfeld's rescue was a failure. As an orphan survivor, the boy was educated within the institutions of Youth Aliyah and the youth movements; the ideological indoctrination these adolescents received encouraged them to disassociate themselves from the past: to forget it entirely and to make themselves over as Jews and as men in the image of the sabra. That Appelfeld resisted these pressures—at what cost one can only begin to calculate—was evinced by the fact that in 1962, after military service and a university literature degree, he published his first collection of short stories, whose theme was the subject he was supposed to have put out of mind. That the stories were written in Hebrew is itself something of a wonder. Although raised in German, Appelfeld was cut off from it in the years of hiding, during which he absorbed smatterings of Russian, Yiddish, and Czech. When he arrived in Palestine he essentially had no developed language; the acquisition of Hebrew was entirely an act of will. In the decade of the sixties Appelfeld produced five collections, containing in all some one hundred stories, with another hundred remaining uncollected. In the seventies the novella became his format of choice, and it is two instances of this recent work, Badenheim 1939 and Age of Wonders, which were the first books of Appelfeld's to be published in English translation.1 The switch to the novella raises involved formal and thematic issues; the focus of this chapter will remain on the corpus of the hundred stories published between 1962 and 1971.

The significance of Appelfeld's short fiction for Hebrew literature and for the literature of catastrophe generally can be epitomized by the following formula: Appelfeld's stories succeed in creating the aura of a credible fictional world. Although this can be said of a number of writers—fewer than we think, really—when it is the reality of the Holocaust that must be made credible, then such an achievement is rare if not singular. By fictional world I do not mean the system of relation and difference set up by any text, but rather “world” in the extensive sense of the epic lineage of the novel form. The fact that the Appelfeld world is made of many short texts indicates that it exists at an even further remove from epic totality than the novel. It is the ghost of that totality, or rather its daemonic mirror image, that makes this multiplicity of discrete fictional gestures, ranging in setting from the forest and villages and monasteries to the Italian coast to small shopkeepers and their society in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, all part of a recognizable and undisplaceable world; this is a world, moreover, given coherence not just by a shared atmospherics but by the rule of certain laws which are as fixed as nature's. Because these laws derive from the Holocaust, the human actions they authorized are almost always unattractive: accusations, evasions, and betrayals being the chief among them. The agents of these actions in Appelfeld's stories are presented in such a way that the distance of judgment that would ordinarily intervene between character and reader is neutralized. This is the credible quality of Appelfeld's fictional world, credible not just in the sense of believable but more in the sense of acceptable. The fact that we accept the plausibility of these characters with neither censure nor sentimentality means that the boundaries of our experience as readers are stretched, or at least become a bit more permeable. Although identification with the Appelfeld world can hardly be spoken of, there is indeed a quality of connection that the texts make possible. Finally, in stressing the aura of a credible fictional world, I borrow with caution a term from parapsychology that designates an invisible field of force that surrounds the body and, like the whorls of a fingerprint, carries a pattern unique to each person. The reference in Appelfeld is to a quality of strangeness in the texture of the stories produced by the repetition of many small motifs, the recurrence of cognate roots, and the employment of a peculiar literary language that amounts to an idiolect.

Indeed, the question of technique, how Appelfeld achieves these effects, raises important issues for criticism. How is the illusion of world created in the fictional text, especially in post-novelistic forms? How is credibility established in the representation of ignoble behavior? These are questions that require sustained inquiry. In the case of Appelfeld it is clear that much of his success stems from an extremely fundamental choice about what not to represent. Everything having to do with what the French call the concentrationary universe—the transports, the camps, the Einsatzgruppen, the fascination with the Nazis and the paraphernalia of evil, that is to say, the entire stock-in-trade of conventional Holocaust literature—all this is left out. Before, after, parallel to—yes; anything but the thing itself. After, especially, as if to say that a catastrophe can be known only through its survivors and its survivals. Like Renaissance perspective paintings, the lines of sight in Appelfeld's fictions all recede to one organizing point, which is an origin assumed and necessary but never visible. But unlike the ideal geometry of the Renaissance, the origin here is a point of negative transcendence, a kind of black hole that sucks in representation the closer one approaches. Appelfeld's is a method of radical metonymy, a necessary stance of adjacency and obliqueness. In this choice there is also no small measure of cunning. Appelfeld assumes a kind of literary competence on our part, a familiarity with the particulars of the concentrationary universe as supplied by documentary materials and films and by the more vulgar practitioners of the fiction of atrocity and even of the pornography of atrocity. Depending upon our knowledge of what is at the center, Appelfeld can avoid the impossible task of attempting to deal with it and, instead, can stake out a position along the margins, where the literary imagination has the chance of maneuvering.

What this means in practice can be seen in the several thematic nodes around which the Appelfeld world organizes itself. Each node is a particular time relative to the war and is characterized by a special set of conditions that define experience. In the short stories this time-experience continuum is divided into four principal segments. The first segment is set in the indefinite past and evokes the ancestral order of Jewish life in eastern Europe as a time of disintegration and incipient apocalypse. These tales are largely collected in Kefor ‘al ha’arets (Frost on the Earth) (1965). The second is roughly parallel in time to the war; it treats of metamorphoses of identity and of the tenuousness of repression. The characters are Jews who have sought to be absorbed into the peasant life of gentile villages and Jewish children raised in convents and monastaries: Bekomat hakarka’ (On the Ground Floor) (1968). The third segment is the Liberation: the first emergence from the camps, bunkers, and forests and the first months of rehabilitation in the Italian transit camps: ‘Ashan (Smoke) (1962) and Bagai’ haporeh (In the Fertile Valley) (1963). The fourth and largest segment is set in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv of the sixties and deals with the unwanted persistence of the past in the lives of East European survivors from the petite-bourgeoisie and the underworld, with a glance at German Jews from the professional classes: Adenei hanahar (Foundations of the River) (1971).2 (Appelfeld's more recent fiction, the novellas of the seventies, has gone back to the period of the eve of the Holocaust in assimilated, German-speaking Jewry, and then ahead to the late forties, the years of adolescence and adaptation in Palestine.)

Appelfeld's development as a writer has involved the progressive appropriation of new segments of the time-experience continuum. His mind works through and explores the conditions of existence determined by each circumstance, and then moves on. This progress, however, is not chronological. The publication dates of the major work or works for each segment do not correspond to a chronological arrangement. (This is a generalized structure; there are stories here and there that would seem to belong more properly to other collections.) The sequence according to the time of writing would be in terms of the ordering above: 3, 1, 2, 4. Liberation, ancestral past, metamorphoses of identity, new life in Israel. Appelfeld works by stages, but this lack of correlation tells us that his is not the way of chronology but of the subjective logic of memory. To follow his work in his order, therefore, is to learn that logic and to track memory as it unburdens itself of feeling, unfreezes as it were, and simultaneously arms itself with the structures of expression.

“Aviv kar” (“Cold Spring”) in Smoke (pp. 49–60), belongs to the second segment of the continuum. The story opens as the delayed news of the Liberation reaches a group of Jews who have survived the war by holding up in an underground bunker in the forests. There are five of them: an adult woman, Tseitl; an adult male, Reb Isaac; an older boy, Berl; and two children, Hershl and the unnamed narrator. When the bunker is first opened they do not know what to do. Reb Isaac goes bounding off across the fields, shouting a woman's name, “Sonia! Sonia!”, and never returns. The others huddle in the recesses of the bunker until the melting snows of the new spring flood their home and force them out. As they wander about aimlessly, the peasants point them out as Jews who are searching for their relatives. A monastery rebuffs their request for refuge. Berl breaks away from the group, only later to be found wounded. In caring for him the group experiences something of the exalted solidarity it once had in the bunker. A peasant woman takes them in for the night, but the price is the sexual possessing of Berl; they move on without him the next day, shamed but incapable of protesting. The three who are left—Tseitl, Hershl, and the narrator—are ushered into the presence of a Gentile holy man, a magus, who reveals in conjured images the faces of those relations who have died in the war. Seeing the truth, Tseitl, who throughout has striven to enforce the fiction of a surrogate family in which she played the role of mother, loses her grip. The story ends with her nostalgic utterance: “All I ask is to be together again as we were in the bunker with Reb Isaac and Berl with us; then I'd be ready to march from one end of the world to the other” (p. 58).

The meaning of “Cold Spring” is generated by the opposed movement of two ineluctable and simultaneous processes: the return to normalcy in the gentile countryside signaled by the Liberation, and the disintegration and dismemberment of the ersatz family after the emergence from the bunker. Appelfeld is not one of those writers for whom the very signature of the cosmos has been rewritten by the Holocaust. In the order of gentile time, life goes on. Many of Appelfeld's stories are founded on a topos of the changes of seasons from winter to spring, signifying the world's forgetfulness; this is the eternal return of nature, from which the gentile peasants are hardly differentiated. The world's wounds scab over and heal, but the Jews inhabit a different order of time, whose movement is as inevitable but whose direction is opposite. The community of the bunker is made up of individuals who are each the last survivor of a family; how their families perished and how they survived are the sort of uneasy questions that, in Appelfeld, are always left to the reader's competent imagination. In the bunker they have constituted a substitute family with the roles of mother and father and children, and they have worked to sustain each other in their survival underground. Like gas molecules escaping from an unstoppered bottle, the artificial family begins to disband the moment the bunker's door is unsealed. The Liberation is the beginning of the end. The functioning illusion of family had been predicated upon the suspension of memory. With the Liberation comes the return of speech and consciousness; the reactivation of memory, the real catastrophe in this text, means that the illusion of restored or reconstituted family must give way to the knowledge of previous loss and ultimate aloneness. When Berl falls ill and is tended by the others, there is an imagined moment of grace, a return to the solidarity of the bunker; but the moment fades before the reality of loss, making possible only the denial and derangement of nostalgia for the bunker. This is as good an example as any of Appelfeld's strategy. Nostalgia for the bunker: a small sadness, a modest redemption, but one which, in suggesting unspeakable matters, opens up a receding vista of loss.

There is an affecting moment in “Cold Spring” when the group comes to a fork in the road and has to choose between the way to Radicz and to Tolcz. Hershl cries out: “Radicz? No Radicz for me. They'll never see my face again!” (p. 56). The sudden association has the effect of the firing of isolated synapses. It is one of the two or three moments in the story, before the concluding revelation, when a connection is made to the past. What happened in Radicz? Was it during the war years or before? We know only that it is a source of pain, whether shame for something he did or hatred for something done to him. Hershl's fleeting association is a sign of the first stirrings of memory after the functional amnesia of the years of hiding. The feelings evoked form one of the major themes in Appelfeld's fiction: the ineluctable relationship between remembering and suffering. Suffering has two faces. Loss is the subject of “Cold Spring,” loss of loved ones, whether family or those who have become like family. Shame and accusation are the darker side of suffering; this is the subject of another story from the Liberation period, “Bagovah hakar” (“The Cold Heights”) in In the Fertile Valley (pp. 135–153).

The story is set in a former fortress and monastery perched on an isolated promontory on the Italian coast, which has been mobilized as a temporary recovery station for a group of survivors. Now that the discipline and vigilance of concealment and escape are no longer necessary, they collapse into the pain that until now could not be indulged. Ravenous hunger struggles with nausea and shrunken intestines; mute and sedated, the survivors take to bed, each huddled in the ordeal of his own pain. Bone knitting bone, the process of convalescence slowly proceeds. Wounds heal, bits of speech return, sensations of beauty and pleasure are rediscovered, and practical plans for the future begin to be discussed. Like the return of spring to the gentile countryside in “Cold Spring,” the progress of physical healing is matched by a countervailing process of darker import. A man and his niece, Spillman and Liuba, who had survived by joining a gentile troupe of traveling clowns, hold themselves aloof from the general clamor of plan-making. The silence is suddenly broken by a terrible shriek of pain by Spillman. Swiftly he drags Liuba along the veranda by her hair and hurls her over the cliff. The act explodes the busy hopefulness that had begun to establish itself. There are demands for Spillman's imprisonment, indictments of Liuba for fornicating with the gentile circus troupers, and defenses of her purity and immaculate lineage. These violent forces had been there all along; yet “until then everything had been pent up behind a barrier which only Spillman's tough body could smash” (p. 147).

Spillman regains control of himself, Liuba recovers, and the group pulls itself together in preparation for departure. But the costs have been great and irreversible. Uncle and niece have become wasted in spirit and vitality, and the other survivors know that they must now go about reconstructing their lives with no expectation of solidarity. The consequences of remembering, it is implied, cannot be otherwise. To survive is to have done terrible things or at least to suspect others of having done them. When memory comes, it decimates, because, for the survivor, the only contents of memory can be shame and accusation, real or imagined. Now, the return of memory is not inescapable. The way out is never to let it surface or to force it back underground by clinging tenaciously to a state of present-mindedness. This is not the ideal here-and-now of contemporary psychologies—the unimpeded availability to emotion—but the opposite: the present as a medium of incessant short-term calculation aimed at keeping emotion at bay. In Appelfeld this stance is expressed in the commercial ethos of the minor entrepreneurs, small merchants, and loan sharks who populate Jerusalem and Tel Aviv of the later stories.

The disingenuous origins of this ethos are the subject of such stories from the time of the Liberation as “‘Al yad hahof” (“Along the Shore”) in Smoke (pp. 163–180), In the Fertile Valley (pp. 116–134), which begins:

Immediately after the war, a world of opportunities opened up; the trains rushed to the ports, to the blue gates which now opened toward the world. A few succeeded in boarding ships; the rest remained here, onshore, near the small huts left by the army, near the waves. A bustle of activity ensued; there were even those who removed their clothes and offered them up for sale; the more enterprising set up stands.

Berl sets out a suitcase and does a brisk trade in nylons and army clothes. Together with Fishl he gives himself over to the frenzy of petty transactions and grander schemes for emigration and business deals. Ostensibly, Berl and Fishl have avoided the burnt-out fate of Spillman and Liuba by suppressing the forces of inner subversion and deflecting them into the untiring energies of enterprise. Yet despite themselves there remains something that binds them to the past. The requisite for success in the newly opened world of opportunities is mobility. A man must be ready to travel quickly and travel light to seize his chance, and Berl has an encumbrance to get rid of before the world is his. Her name is Gitl; she had been nine years old when Berl had found her in the snow and brought her into the bunker. He had abandoned her twice in the past. Once, in the forest, he had gone back to get her. At the end of the war she had found him. Dazed and feeble, she clings to him, and he to her, appearing to the others “like lovers doomed to friendship by a supreme decree” (Smoke, p. 171). But as the frenzy of expectations mounts, the renewed bond loosens. Berl and Fishl cannot resist the call to set out for the South and the opportunities that await them there. To gain freedom of movement they hand over Gitl to a convent, earnestly assuring her and themselves that she will be in good hands and will learn French there. Outwitting the debilitating forces of memory, Berl and Fishl make their escape; yet the costs are clear, and they extend beyond those suffered by Gitl. For Berl the repetition of his betrayal means that he has abandoned himself to a world so devoid of trust that the circle of betraying and being betrayed can never be broken. By eluding memory he has fallen into the clutches of the past.

Does Berl, after all, have a choice? The alternatives are the madness of Tseitl, the lobotomized gaze of Spillman, the repeated victimizing of Gitl; and even these can hardly be said to be choices as much as outcomes. This is the great and simple secret of the Appelfeld world: there is no freedom. With one or two exceptions in the later stories, the lives of survivors bend to the shape imposed by iron laws of destiny. This shape is inevitably the same: a journey of evasion which is forced back to the ground of truth, as if repossessed by a gravitational force which can never be broken. At the apogee of denial at the center of most of the stories, there hovers a moment of grace in which the characters repose into a belief in the restoration of what has been lost or at least a hope for cessation of the process of disintegration and denudement. In “Cold Spring” this is the moment of Berl's unexplained wound, which makes him dependent upon the ministrations of others and briefly allows the group to reexperience itself as a family. In “Cold Heights” it is the moment before Spillman's eruption, when the survivors are busy making plans for the future and hoping to keep together as a group. In “Along the Shore” it is the interval of reunion with Gitl, when even Berl believes that he will never again abandon her. These moments always pass, yet there is no apparent causality; no one does anything to tip the balance. There is no need for explanations. The moment of grace has merely been a reprieve, an interruption in the unfolding of a process that admits of no ultimate alteration.

In a world shaped by predetermined forces, heroic action is hardly thinkable. Nor does Appelfeld allow even the existential dignity of the symbolic protest of the condemned man. This is a dour vision in any climate; in a national literature forged by the Bialik of “In the City of Slaughter” and carried on by the writer-warriors of the Palmah generation, it amounts to a kind of sedition.3 Deeply shamed by the supposed reality behind the slogan “like sheep to the slaughter,” the leaders of the young state sought to deflect attention away from the morally compromised survivor and to highlight counter-examples of uprising and resistance. The Day of Holocaust and Bravery (Yom hasho’ah vehagevurah,) established in the 1950s, left no doubt in practice which of the two was the privileged term. Now Appelfeld would have obliged this national sentiment if he had made us feel the ugliness of what, on the part of his characters, are indeed ugly acts. But he declines to do so. Nor does his refusal take the opposite tack so common in contemporary Western literature: the glorification of the survivor as the heroic figure of the new world of persecution and absurdity, or more radically, the aestheticization of evil through an entry into a Genêt-like world of redemption through transgression.

Appelfeld's is a middle course, yet one that never leads to the blandness of clinical presentation. It is a question not of neutrality but of neutralization. The writing works to defuse the norms of judgment that govern the representation of survival in Hebrew literature and to establish in their place a stance of understanding. Understanding is not forgiveness, which implies a cordon of purity from across which remission is offered. To understand means to accept that such is the nature of things, that to survive in a world in which what happened happened means to have done certain things and to be a certain way. Appelfeld's goal is our knowledge of that world; he wants us to accept the reality of it against instincts of evasion every bit as strong as his characters'. To the extent to which Appelfeld succeeds in rendering this given and determined world fictionally plausible, to that extent he manages to purchase our acceptance of his characters' humanity. And this is the paradox: this humanity is attained precisely because they have no freedom.

In Appelfeld's project of rendering his world fictionally plausible, there would seem to be an inherent limitation. If this is a world of implacable laws, how can it be interesting? The answer is that although the ultimate reality is fixed, the proximate means of evasion are manifold. The conditions and climes, the stages of life and of history, the differences of class and temperament are variegated; although the points of departure and arrival are always the same, the voyage of bad faith is different each time. It is this space in between, so briefly given and so hedged in from both sides, that is the zone of these characters' humanity—what is left of their freedom—and they people it densely and variously. Appelfeld's world is monochromatic; but the intensity of contrasts he forces us to discover within his limited part of the spectrum has the effect—indeed the presumption—of suggesting that the part be taken for the whole.

Instead of taking its characters forward in time from the forests and the transit camps, Appelfeld's fiction of the early sixties—as collected in Frost on the Earth (1965)—moves backwards. The themes are taken from the life of East European Jewry in a world that ostensibly knows nothing of the destruction to come: the pilgrimage of a group of Hasidim to their rebbe; the memoirs of a skeptical rabbinical court beadle; the declining of power of the last in a family of shtadlanim; the confessions of a businessman stuck for the winter in a distant trading post; the weariness of commercial travelers and Zionist lecturers in their rounds of distant villages; the failed preparations of a town to emigrate to America. One might expect that Appelfeld is probing for origins, searching for structures of consciousness and behavior that would explain what came later. In fact the opposite is true. Instead of attempting to reconstruct the past, Appelfeld intentionally and systematically commits the fallacy of projecting onto the past a knowledge of later events. It is as if the ancestral order, as a world suffused with despair, entropy, and disintegration, was always already under the star of the Holocaust.4 Here is the same condemned destiny of human life, the same implacable laws, the same temptation to evasion—though, of course, the strategies of evasion are particular to time and place. This sameness of conditions is a way for Appelfeld to assert that the nature of existence is one, and that it matters little if one writes of survivors, who have gone through the event, or of their predecessors, those who later, at best, may have the chance to become survivors. “There is no earlier and later (ein mukdam ume’uhar,) only the burning present,” says one of Appelfeld's narrators, echoing the rabbis' counsel against seeking a sequential order of events in biblical narrative. It is in these tales that Appelfeld most closely approaches the canons of a mythic scripture. Indeterminate journeys, far-away capitals from which laws are issued but which can never be reached, isolated and nameless monologists, powerlessness in the face of encroaching forces—this is an ambience which suggests nothing so much as the wanderings of Israel in the desert as retold by the Kafka of The Castle. For the reader of Hebrew literature steeped in Abramowitsch, Berkowitch, and Agnon, Appelfeld's reworking of the long-used thematics of the shtetl has the force of a successful defamiliarization.

“Hagerush” (“The Expulsion”) (pp. 56–65), one of the most accomplished stories in this series, literalizes evasion in the form of an actual journey, and shows how finely textured the representation of this idea can be. The story concerns a community of Hasidim who are banished from their town and make the long trip to the provincial capital en masse in open wagons. The circumstance of the expulsion edict, the machinations of the gentiles, the failed intercessions and bribes—of all this there is nothing, implying that such information is beside the point. Expulsion is inscribed in the cosmos; as in Appelfeld generally, such a fate is a defining condition of existence rather than a product of history. The truth that is evaded is simply put: their journey is coerced, not elected; what awaits them in the capital is further rejection and dispossession; this is the beginning of a decline which will stop only in destruction and death.

When they first take to the road, the Hasidim are exhilarated; they experience their leaving as a liberation. All these long years their lives have been ground down by the threats and harassments of the gentiles. Nor have they been left in peace by their fellow Jews; the westernizers and half-breeds have persecuted them and ridiculed their faith. The unrelenting press of business and livelihood has dulled their spirituality. Now, as they move through the open fields, they shed their diffidence and abandon themselves to the vast openness of the heavens. The beauty of the countryside seems revealed for the first time, and they give themselves over to intoning the niggunim from whose spiritual strength they have long been cut off. Their progress evokes a nostalgia for the festival pilgrimage journeys to their rebbe's court in happier times.

The women are less exhilarated than agitated. The small-mindedness enforced by years of haggling in the market make them resist the abandonment of the men and stick closer to the details of the journey. In the past they have trod the road to the capital, not for pilgrimages but to transport merchandise; they know how very long the journey is and how dear the price of housing there. It is they who have intimations that this expulsion is not a periodic annoyance but a permanent uprooting, and they are frantic because a hasty departure prevented them from taking leave from the graves of their ancestors. From their everyday intercourse with the gentiles, the women know them better than the men and can less easily shake off their anxieties.

The women's reservations remain unvoiced because articulation is against the principles of the community. They are known as the Mute Hasidim. Their strength lies in their restraint. In the welter of questions and calculations about the journey—how long? how many? where to?—they see the devil working to undermine the stance of faith. They know the art of silence and await the Redeeming Word. When the silence is at last broken, however, it is not by a redemptive utterance. One of their number, Reb Hershl, steps in front of the caravan and shouts: “Halt! Where are the horses taking us?” (p. 59). Although it fails to stop them, Hershl's cry reverberates subversively. It implies that neither they nor a higher providence controls their movements; they are led by their horses. More than violating the silence, Hershl's provocation lies in its explicitly joining a name and a thing. Precisely what name to give to the kind of movement the group is embarked upon is a critical point: journey (mas‘a)? wandering (nedidah)? expulsion (gerush)? The nominative potential of language is what is feared: to speak is to name; to name is to interpret; to interpret is to admit the possibility of alternative interpretations, which welcomes doubt and saps the will of the faithful.

That the question of language and truth is central to the story is underscored by the encounter of the Hasidim with a traveling troupe of mummers. The mummers are Jews who, in exchange for taking a solemn vow to renounce...

(The entire section is 14039 words.)

Lawrence L. Langer (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Aharon Appelfeld and the Uses of Language and Silence,” in Remembering for the Future: The Impact of the Holocaust on the Contemporary World, Volume II, Pergamon Press, 1989, pp. 1602–609.

[In the following essay, Langer contends that Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939 is full of narrative ironies, and that “his language contains a Janus-like energy, full of hints and portents that never achieve the clarity of expressed meaning.”]

Aharon Appelfeld's art takes us on a journey into the realm of the unsaid; but it rejects the corollary idea, so often maintained by commentators on Holocaust literature, that the unsaid is necessarily unsayable. This...

(The entire section is 5940 words.)

James Hatley (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Impossible Mourning: Two Attempts to Remember Annihilation,” in Centennial Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 445–59.

[In the following essay, Hatley addresses the role of memory and mourning in the novella, Badenheim 1939.]


Where are these dead? In a memorable scene from Badenheim 1939, a novel by Aharon Appelfeld, several fictive Jews gather at the home of two fictive ladies of the evening, long-time and beloved residents of a fictional European resort. The characters improvise a small party on the last night in Badenheim before their forced departure to Nazi-occupied...

(The entire section is 6320 words.)

Naomi B. Sokoloff (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Aharon Appelfeld—The Age of Wonders,” in Imagining the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, pp. 129–52.

[In the following essay, Sokoloff considers Appelfeld's use of a child's perspective in Age of Wonders, maintaining that it “may cast the world of devastation in a light that makes recollection of the past more bearable for author and reader.”]

The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads To bury itself deep somewhere inside our memories.

—Mif, “Terezín”

But now I am no more a child
For I have learned to hate.
I am a...

(The entire section is 10477 words.)

Zilla Jane Goodman (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Aharon Appelfeld's The Immortal Bartfuss: The Holocaust, the Body, and Repression,” in Hebrew Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust, edited by Leon I. Yudkin, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993, pp. 85–96.

[In the following essay, Goodman traces the development of the protagonist of The Immortal Bartfuss.]

Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor of the Holocaust who, in his own words, has been “inclined” by fate for “some reason,” to literature. He tries to speak, as he says, of

the individual whose mother and father gave him/her a name, to whom they taught their language, gave of their love and...

(The entire section is 4574 words.)

Gila Ramras-Rauch (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “In the Fertile Valley,” in Aharon Appelfeld: The Holocaust and Beyond, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 56–72.

[In the following essay, Ramras-Rauch provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Appelfeld's In the Fertile Valley.]

Appelfeld's deep study of Jewish motifs begins in his second collection of short stories, Ba‘guy Ha’poreh (In the Fertile Valley, 1963). Appelfeld sometimes uses the first-person narrator in these stories of the 1960s; but when he does, the effect is not markedly different from his third-person narration. The reader is not introduced to the inner life of the character; nor is a single point of view...

(The entire section is 7038 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Cohen, Joseph. “Aharon Appelfeld.” In Voices of Israel, pp. 107–40. Albany: State University of New York, 1990.

Discusses Appelfeld's experiences during the Holocaust and how they have impacted his life and work.

Wisse, Ruth. “Aharon Appelfeld, Survivor.” In Commentary 75, No. 8 (1983): 73–6.

Provides an overview of Appelfeld's life and work.

Additional coverage of Appelfeld's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 112, 133; and Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 23, and 47.

(The entire section is 74 words.)