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.
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.
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.