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Aharon Appelfeld 1932–-

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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

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*‘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)

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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 family, property, and their Jewishness, have been given an aptitude for comic imitation and mimicry. The mummers and the Hasidim are presented as each other's double. Both are covenantal communities endowed with special gifts, traveling the countryside detached from home and hearth. Yet for the mummers, their dispossession and their wandering are elected and acknowledged for what they are. If the Hasidim protect (or evade) a sacred truth by silence, the mummers ridicule corrupt truths by overarticulation. In their stage parody of a rich man's attempts forcibly to marry off his daughters, what is conspicuous about their speech is its loudness and inflection; they speak “so that each word should be heard and each rhyme sounded, and so that this Reb Shmuel on the stage should seem the most miserly of misers, the most fanatical of fanatics …” (p. 63). Their language tells too much of the truth; it exaggerates what is already extreme. The plasticity of their expression, its mimicking disguises, its very volubility disclose no truth worth protecting. The Faustian relinquishing of their Jewishness has made their wanderings truly aimless. Unlike the Hasidim they lack even a longing for a lost center—or the illusion of still having one.

While the mummers cheapen reality, the Hasidim are in danger of making it into something much more than it is. The practical men among them seek to enforce the discipline of an operative illusion: their movement is a journey to a goal which will alleviate their plight. Required are moderation of behavior, attentiveness to the road, avoidance of speculation, confident faith on the model of the old pilgrimages. This restraint is opposed and overtaken as the narrative progresses by an apocalyptic and mythicizing tendency. There are the “soaring conjectures” (hirhurim mafligim) of those who would interpret their present afflictions as an opportunity “to be tested, as it were (kivyakhol), by the same trials to which the Patriarchs were submitted” (p. 60). Their journey resembles the descent into Egypt; the capital is a necessary Pithom and Ramses to be endured before a greater redemption. The typological restraint represented by the “as it were” is soon abandoned. In the Sabbath observance, which corresponds to the moment of grace in most of the tales, there is a will to project existence onto the plain of already redeemed time. There were those who, “in their desire to exalt the hour, later told that this was a Sabbath as it was first given (kenetinatah); even the smell of the sacrifices wafted to their nostrils” (p. 64).

“The innocent would not corroborate this,” the text continues immediately afterwards, “because they are wary of any making of comparisons or parables” (p. 64). This perspective of innocence, by which the variegated evasions of others are revealed, is the possession of an orphan from whose point-of-view “The Expulsion” is narrated.5 Unprecocious, the child's mind is uncluttered by acquired knowledge; not yet knowing what to fear, he is untempted by the need to interpret reality and unpracticed in the art of interpretation. The boy's orphanhood gives him both an independence from human bonds and the special protection of the community. His unique place is lodged “between rumor and astonishment” (bein hashemu‘ah vehapeli’ah, p. 56), where he can mediate between what people say about events and what he himself observes. (The noninterpretive amazement of the child later becomes the basis for the novella The Age of Wonders, 1979.)

The issue is sight versus interpretation, and Appelfeld clearly puts forward the figure of the orphan as standing for the possibility of a fictional discourse which registers rather than construes, observes rather than interprets, and ultimately suppresses the urge toward imaginative transfiguration. It is not farfetched to see in this defense something of the claims Appelfeld would make for his own writing:

[The orphan's] eyes registered each sight, so that when the time would come he would be able to relate them in his own language, though he did not know then that only he would be the faithful witness. The depredation of time had effaced in them, without their knowing it, all expressions of glory. Only he, in his innocent attentiveness, could piece together image to image. Perhaps the practical men even understood that with his wondering gaze, only he could grasp the moment; and they therefore allowed him to move among them so that no detail should escape his eyes.

(p. 61)

This self-reflexive meditation is one that Appelfeld seems to allow himself only within the mythic ambience of the ancestral tales. Although much of Appelfeld's fiction may be said to be broadly autobiographical, it is impersonally autobiographical, and there are few passages that reflect on the role of perception and writing. This passage stresses a quality of fateful prescience; there is a shadowy grasping of the orphan's future role not just as survivor but as teller. What is passively and wordlessly witnessed now will at some future time be transposed into language, and not just language but his own language. This hindsight/foresight framework presents the experience of the writer as coming in two stages. As a child young enough to be unburdened by grids of interpretation and dull enough to be free of precocious learning, his mind was the perfect blank film upon which images could record themselves—serially, comprehensively, without patterning. Later, after the events, when he gains language—and this is by no means merely a matter of age—he effects the transposition into words and arranges the images in meaningful configurations. Appelfeld's particular conceit is the claim that for him the writerly second stage carries over something of the photographic innocence of the first. His project of neutralizing judgment, his refusal to demonize or sentimentalize, is born out of a desire to be “the faithful witness,” the one who eludes the pressure of later historical meanings and attempts to articulate images as they were grasped by the “wondering gaze” of the child.

“We must make a simplistic distinction between those who saw suffering through to the end, exhausted, as it were, and between those who escaped to the forests, disguised themselves as farmers and circus performers, and, so carrying death within them, wandered from place to place,” declares the narrator of “The Cold Heights” (In The Fertile Valley, pp. 135–153). Appelfeld's work—concentrated in his fourth book of stories, Bekomat hakarka’, (On the Ground Floor) (1968)—represents a choice clearly taken. During the actual years of the war, it is the world parallel to the organized torture of the concentrationary universe that is explorable terrain. This is the world of Jews who, because of their constitution, their will, and their resourcefulness, succeeded in effacing all signs of their Jewishness, imitating the conduct and manner of the gentiles, and fading into the rural countryside as farmers, itinerant peddlers, and performers. This disguised life offers rich fictional opportunities for the anatomy of the curious type of the non-Jewish Jew or for an obscene picaresque in the manner of Kosinsky's The Painted Bird. Yet for Appelfeld it is not the perversity of this situation that interests but its typicality. The peculiar figure of the Jew-turned-gentile serves as an occasion for raising large questions about the nature of Jewishness, the possibility of becoming an other, the encounter between the self and its double. These are questions that arise, in part, out of the separate experience of the Holocaust Kingdom, but just as much out of the mind's quandaries in the fables of identity of modernist fiction.

Again, Kafka is the bridge. The thesis story in On the Ground Floor (pp. 55–62) concerns a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who, pursued into the forest, suddenly discover that in body and gesture they have changed into gentile peasants. The story's title, “Hahishtanut,” translates as “The Transformation” or “The Metamorphosis,” and the allusion, perhaps the homage, is unmistakable. Like its precursor, the effect of Appelfeld's text is created by the interchangeability of disparate orders of things, as this confusion is rendered plausible by the matter-of-factness of naturalistic detail. Appelfeld's nameless protagonists awake after their months of flight to find that their skin has coarsened and hair grows on their hands. They find themselves able to swim, scale rocks, climb down into caves, fish in the streams. They make for themselves coats of pelts and tar-sealed boots and converse with the farmers in the local dialect. As in Kafka, too, the sudden thereness of the transformation is comically absurd. The text has the quality of time-lapse photography: the male character is giddy from the rapidity of the change, as if he were watching his skin toughen and hair sprout before his very eyes. For the reader it is a parody of evolution, in which the gradually acquired adaptive traits in the long struggle for survival are compressed into a few moments. Finally, like Gregor Samsa's fate, the suddenly altered state of Appelfeld's characters probes a critical ambiguity about the nature of the link between before and after. Is the metamorphosis a fate visited by the decree of unspeakable events beyond their control? Or is it a chosen destiny, the certain consequences of willed evasion, or even the accelerated culmination of tendencies already latent?

For a while the couple's transformation is a fortunate fall into the lap of nature. They live a primitive life by a river: bathing and drying themselves in the sun, learning to cure fish and dry fruits, reading the signs of the wind and the clouds. In nearly every Appelfeld story, especially the tales of the Liberation and the countryside, seasonal change serves as both the setting for the action and its clock, and it is always the circuit from early spring through summer. It is the metronome, set at different tempos, which is always ticking in the background of the text. Nowhere are the workings of this master trope as conspicuous as in “The Metamorphosis.” The unalterable movement of nature through the seasonal cycle parallels the implacability of the laws which govern the destinies of the refugees and survivors. The parallel, however, is only a mimicking. Nature has its perennial rebirths, and the peasants, though at times hardly differentiated from the earth, have shelter enough to survive the dying flux of the seasons. The Jews, however, move along another track. The beneficent warm months, which suggest the arrival of safety, turn out to be a false promise, merely a momentary coinciding.

This moment of grace is represented in “The Metamorphosis” as a still point between two movements: the memory of Jewishness has been effaced and the full naturalization into gentileness has not yet taken place. But things change with summer's end. On Sundays she goes with the other women to church to light a candle; when she returns he is drunk. Sometimes he flies into a jealous rage and beats her and she runs away weeping. Other times he weeps, “the way grown gentiles weep beside a stone or a religious statue or when the lord raises his whip over them” (p. 60). When their garden bower freezes over there is no one to take them in. She would have them indenture themselves to the farmers in exchange for shelter; he refuses, convinced that this is a ruse to give vent to her adulterous desires. On the morning of the first snow, he awakes to find her gone, and his frostbitten feet prevent pursuit. Clutching his knife, as the story ends, he “realizes that now everything is ice: the garments, the river, even he. But when the spring thaw comes, he will bring her back and tie her down (veya’ akod otah) here” (p. 62).

This use of a rare word that can summon up only the Akedah in Genesis 23 is a subtle effect. The purpose is less to urge a closely observed comparison between the two contexts than to strike a concluding semantic chord of dissonant complexity. The man's blood-thirsty desire has nothing of Jewishness about it, certainly none of the high faith of Abraham and Isaac. It is the gentile brutality that has taken him over. Yet Appelfeld's insistence on the root ‘akod for this most non-Jewish of urges suggests the impossibility of the separations the story would at first seem to propose. The effacement of Jewishness is a state which can be approached but never arrived at absolutely. There remains an unwished-for yet irreducible residue of consciousness which subverts the consummation. The Jew has forgotten enough to acquire the gentile's earthy brutishness but not enough to be allowed (or to trust in) the primitive shelter of gentile society. The restraints on human nature have been removed, and so have the protections. The frozen legs, savage thoughts, and Jewish words—these are the markers of the story's final image of arrested metamorphosis.

What would happen if the transformation in fact succeeded? Appelfeld locates the nameless hero of “Habrihah” (“The Escape”), On the Ground Floor (pp. 5–20) at a considerably advanced point along the path to gentileness. When the enemy rounded up the Jews of his region, he happened to be on the road. He bought himself a fur coat and a horse and set about assuming the identity of an intinerant gentile peddler. Within a month's time the ruse had been brought off to perfection. The features of his face rearranged themselves; he strode with the gait of a man familiar with the forest trails; his body exuded the smell of farmers; he learned to bless and to curse at the right times and to comport himself in the proper manner with landowners and priests. Within the year he was established in the countryside, not an isolate shunning human habitation, but a relied-upon supplier of small necessaries, a man respected and called by name. As in “The Metamorphosis,” the transformation takes place with an almost miraculous effortlessness, and this astonishing change in individual identity finds an ironic correspondence in the fate of the Jews of the region as a community. Just as the peddler has succeeded quickly and cleanly in replacing the Jewishness within him, so the countryside as a whole, once the Jews have been removed, has easily managed to forget their existence. Grass grows over the Jews' houses; their valuables “soon find their place in the farmers' houses, loose their Jewish color, and bloom on the commodes” (p. 7). A few Jewish words are left in the local speech; more than that, nothing at all.

The displaced candlesticks and wine goblets, though in themselves inert, represent the trace that is inevitably left by any change, no matter how seemingly total. Although the peddler's manner never faltered in his transaction with gentiles, when alone in the woods he sometimes becomes afraid and finds himself murmuring broken verses from the prayer book. “His Jewishness,” observes the narrator, “lay beside him like the fallen leaves beside the trees in the fall. It decomposed beside him and within him” (p. 7). Although the tenor of this image chiefly underscores the separableness and dispensability of the former identity, the vehicle permits other implications. The leaves, now shed, were once organically part of the trees, which will again put forth leaves; and even what has been discarded rots not just externally but within as well, a cankerous presence. Soon the text reveals that the eradicated Jewish community has also left traces that are not just inanimate objects. Rustling sounds in the forest betray the presence of several other Jews who, like the peddler, survived by accident, but, unlike him, have remained visibly Jewish and therefore must hide. The discovery of these mortified creatures is the fulcrum of the story; the peddler's response to them tests the nature of his transformation.

Self or other? At first he views them with fascination and disgust. Cringing, rag-tag, they crawl through the high grass of summer, steering clear of the villages. They appear to him like grotesquely magnified insects flushed from their lairs. He regards them as a hunter regards an unworthy prey which he could cut down with one swoop if he so troubled himself. Soon the Jews' presence in the forest becomes something more than an annoyance. He feels his life invaded and infested; if he fails to reveal his identity to them, he fears “they will swarm over him like desperate summer roaches, storm him with the last of their anger, and bite into his alien flesh” (p. 11). The peddler's fears neatly recapitulate the hysterias and demonologies that traditionally flourish in the absence of real contact with Jews. It is not until such an encounter that his alienness is disturbed.

The irritants come in the form of two boys and an old man, whose presence is given away by the audible strains of their sing-song humash un taytsh. They are stuck in the high grass because their feet froze in the winter and they cannot move far; it was their immobility which saved them when the area was combed for unapprehended Jews. The plaintiveness of their Jewish voices has stirred something inside the peddler, and when they inquire, he tells them the story of his own accidental escape. The two boys are struck with amazement. The figure who stands before them is gentile in every detail; “how is it possible,” they naively wonder, “for a man to change so much?” (p. 18). The old man is less credulous and converses with the peddler with the cautiousness of a man used to the wiles of the world. The invitation to tell his story, the boys' astonishment, and the old man's suspiciousness combine for the first time to tamper with the complete externalization of self the peddler has achieved. The sensation of having his memory pricked involves beholding a self prior to his present one and, like the boys, wondering at the vastness of the change. “He was caught now in his own enigma” (p. 18).

As the sun sets the Jews draw off to themselves to pray, and the peddler is left standing by himself like an accused man (kine‘esham). Struggling to say something to them in Yiddish, he comes up with the foreign words that are now all the language he has. Though he offers them clothing and a horse and urges them to begin trading in the villages, they have become afraid of him and slip away in the darkness. Their rejection is a judgment: he may or may not once have been Jewish but now he is one of them. The peddler, who began by feeling superior to and separate from these despicable and puny creatures, ends by finding himself “imprisoned by their gaze” (p. 17). They have unmanned him by making him aware of his alienness. Yet paradoxically and tragically, the metamorphosis has been too successful; he has crossed over, and there is no way to come back. The encounter with the Jews has robbed him of his obliviousness and left him stranded in the middle, a survivor just beginning to realize the costs of his survival.

It is worth emphasizing that the agents of the peddler's undoing are Jews. While one might have expected some unreconstructed bit of behavior to give away the disguise, the peasants and the farmers in all the stories on this theme entertain no suspicions, and there is not one scene of discovery. By making these unmaskings come from the stirrings of memory in the self or from the encounter with the other-as-Jew, Appelfeld is fashioning conundrums of identity and staging Jewish dramas that remain unconditionally internal. But he is doing something less than that as well. What he is keeping out is as significant as what he is keeping in. Excluded is the face of the enemy: peasants, farmers, landowner, local collaborators, and most of all, Nazis. This absence is the rule not just in these tales of the forest and countryside but up and down the line in all of Appelfeld's stories. The representation of gentile existence is undertaken only in the case of Jews who have entered into a gentile identity. This exclusion is the result, in part, of Appelfeld's rigorous aesthetic discipline, which calls for the avoidance of melodrama and gross effects. One senses in Appelfeld a moral stance as well. The fascination with evil is a highly appetitive faculty, and Appelfeld knows that the reader would prefer to have it fed than to be forced to concentrate on the threadbare and pitiable ordeals of the victims of evil, especially survivors. To represent the figure of the enemy in the medium of narrative prose fiction, moreover, means to understand and humanize it, and this is a project which leads in its own direction and carries its own responsibilities.

Removed from the context of the Holocaust, Appelfeld's choice is striking for its continuity with the precedents of the Hebrew literary imagination. The poets of Lamentations, the Rabbis of the midrash, and the payyetanim of the Crusader massacres are joined in keeping the enemy in the background lest the destruction fail to be grasped as an issue of the covenant between God and Israel. Bialik kept the perpetrators of the Kishinev pogrom out of his poem in order to check evasion of responsibility for Jewish self-defense. Elusive of theological and ideological goals, Appelfeld cannot be said to have such programmatic motives; and the metaphysics of his fictional world makes no provision for a commanding, covenant-forming God. Nevertheless, the choice is the same, and so the effect. The force of Appelfeld's fiction is centripetal, drawing our consciousness inward toward the Jewish people, toward the lives of survivors, toward the human heart. It is a writing of self-confrontation which offers no outlets.

Appelfeld's strongest stories are largely contemporaneous with the time of their writing. These are the tales of new life in Adenei hanahar (Foundations of the River [1971]—perhaps a play on Streets of the River). Set in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv of the 1960s, they concern survivors who have reestablished lives as merchants, restaurant proprietors, and loansharks. It is just because this milieu seems so unpromising as fictional material that Appelfeld is able to exert the maximum control over his medium. In the earlier stories the narrative voice had to work against the grain of the narrative situations. Appelfeld's understated and minimalist mode of telling was in tension with feelings and events that were inherently overwhelming and melodramatic. This was a tension creatively exploited but uneasily maintained; the polarity was sometimes schematic and jarring. With the bunkers, forests, and DP camps behind them by fifteen or twenty years, and now settled in to occupations roughly continuous with their lives before the war, Appelfeld's people present a reality which is tractably drab. Although this ordinariness is only evasion in another guise—the sign of a past more deeply buried—the layers and the surface provide an opportunity for more subtle texturing and for a narrative language that need be less on guard. Appelfeld's Hebrew style changes as well. Lush, difficult, and outré, the language of the early collections is a style whose artificiality contributes to the aura of strangeness in those tales. During the sixties Appelfeld's Hebrew undergoes a process of naturalization. It becomes more like standard literary Hebrew and less like—in the tradition of Gnessin—a replication in Hebrew of European literary diction. The style is still recognizably Appelfeld's; like his characters, it is far from assimilated into the new milieu, but it is at least more at home there.

Appelfeld's retreat from strangeness is hardly a failure of nerve. Just the opposite. While he restricted his fiction to faraway settings and spoke in a difficult tongue about deformed creatures, his work could be respected as occupying a separate, perhaps sacred, niche within Hebrew literature. The later stories, with their new setting and new style, presume to claim a place within the mainland of the national literature and to leave behind the status of venerated anomoly. The positive heroes of the Palmah writers and the symbolic antiheroes of the younger writers who eclipsed them were drawn alike from the founders and sons of the New Yishuv. Kibbutz members, soldiers, teachers, writers—their lives took place within the institutional realities of the young state and were judged variously in reference to the faltering ideals of the socialist Zionist tradition. Appelfeld's shopkeepers and loansharks stretch the scope of classes and types deserving of the attention of serious literary art. The main force of this move, however, is to take up for sympathic study a population for whom the Zionist revolution and the founding of the State remain facts of consummate irrelevance. This indifference is not the result of ideological counterstatement or political illiteracy; the stories do not touch this level of consciousness. Rather, in the existence of the survivors the transforming event has happened long ago. That their lives were rehabilitated in the Land of Israel, whose creation as a modern state was thought by its founders to alter the framework of Jewish history, does not seem to touch them. They could be living just as well—probably much better—in New York or Buenos Aires. They remain unredeemed, their only deliverance coming, perhaps, from Appelfeld's writing about them. Nor can these characters be dismissed as a perverse selection, a collection of hard cases. The challenge of these stories to the values of Hebrew literature lies precisely in a normative claim: the State and all that it represents are, at some level, powerless in the face of other, prior realities.

There is, in fact, only one of these stories in which the State figures thematically. “Bronda,” the first story in Foundations of the River (pp. 12–16), is set in Jerusalem on Independence Day in one of the years when the city was the scene of great military parades after the Six-Day War. Jerusalem in the story is alive with the swirl of gay crowds, bright dresses, and musical instruments, as old and young join in a day of festive acclamation. The mood is summarized by a children's choir's singing the song “Yerushalayim shel ma‘alah” (Jerusalem the Heavenly). The title of the song, which is a fictional variant of the then-popular lyric “Jerusalem the Golden,” implies the existence of a fallen double, a Jerusalem neither heavenly nor golden, which becomes the true setting for the narrative. For the inhabitants of this other Jerusalem the celebration is a day to stay away and stay inside. “How forlorn were the cafés! People huddled by the espresso machine, drawn into themselves, as if the secret of their impermanence had been revealed to them” (p. 11). Among the gloomy company is Kandl, the loan-shark, who is doubly dejected because of the death on the previous day of his lover, a blind woman named Bronda, to whom in the past he would repair for comfort on days like this.

The kind of comfort Kandl used to receive from Bronda was of a perverse kind. He needs to be comforted because his life of late has not been going well. Trained in the black market of occupied Germany, Kandl has transferred his profession of moneylending with interest—with its methods of risk and intimidation—to life in Israel. But he has become a superannuated figure in the new environment; most merchants now use the banks, and those who owe him money feel little need to settle their accounts. He is caught between the world's contempt for him and his universal distrust of the world, emblemized by the savings sewn into the sleeves of his never-removed coat. What Bronda offered him was an explanation for his bad luck. She believed that his afflictions are a punishment for sins committed during the war, evasions and betrayals about which only he can know. Kandl is a man who has lived without God, she claimed, and until he seeks atonement he will have no rest. He, in turn, disdained her accusations and her talk about God and repentence. Try as he might, he could remember of his early life only that he was born in Lodz, hidden by a gentile woman during the war, and afterwards had escaped to Germany, where he began his activities. Of parents, brothers, and sister—nothing. Yet despite his protestations, Kandl cannot get free of the conviction that there is something rotten inside him, and each of Bronda's curses cuts him deeply. His memory is so deeply frozen by what he saw and what he did in those years that to thaw it would be to risk a pain much greater than what he endures now. Kandl and Bronda are bound together like sinner and confessor, with the difference that he can never name his sin and she can never supply absolution. He is like the figures of Lamentations, who bear the crushing conviction of sin without the knowledge of specific transgressions. He is unlike them in that he has no convenantal faith with which to console himself. He has only Bronda, and when she dies on the eve of Indepedence Day, the bond is severed. While the nation celebrates independence as freedom, Kandl experiences independence as abandonment and as the beginning of his end.

The bond between two survivors is the principal social unit in the Appelfeld world. In the fables of identity, like “The Escape,” the bond exists between the Jew-become-gentile and a more visibly identified Jewish double. In most of the stories the bond is between two people, often unrelated by family, whose relationship was forged by the cooperation necessary for survival during the war—and sometimes by the betrayals as well. Like most things in the Appelfeld world, this relationship is less elected than given; the two people are forcibly and permanently “bonded together” by the necessity of events. In the narrative space of the stories that necessity has already become psychological and spiritual. Appelfeld never shows us the crucible of brute, physical necessity in which the bond was formed. In the tales of the forest and the gentile countryside the originating events are only in the recent past (the pursuit of the couple in “The Metamorphosis,” for example). The stories in Foundations of the River study the fate of the bond after fifteen or twenty years. What emerges strikingly from this examination is, after so much time and such different circumstances, how little has changed: the nature of the bond remains stamped by its origins in need and suspicion. The need now has become a need for companionship with someone who has been through the same ordeals, who knows what things were like, who shares the past; and concomitantly there is a need for protection, unspoken and conspiratorial, from the contingencies of the world. Now, what unfortunately works against the functional success of this companionship is the fact that mutual suspicion was as integral to the beginnings of the bond as mutual support. The necessary habit of constant distrust of one's surroundings was internalized forever; and danger could be expected not only from the enemy but from internal betrayals as well.

The bond, then, is actually an equilibrium between the pushes and pulls of two contradictory—and, each in their way, absolute—forces: the need for the protection of others and the distrust of others. The fragileness of this balance is the subject of one of Appelfeld's most affecting stories, “Hilufei mishmarot” (“Changing the Watch”) in Foundations of the River (pp. 54–59). The bond in this case is between Simha and Baruch, partners in a store who also share a room together. So often are they in each other's company that the residents of their pension call them “the couple.” Yet despite this constant companionship each man maintains a separate business life of small private deals; they are forever borrowing and lending—with interest—between each other, and each is convinced that it is the fixed intention of the other to outsmart him. “Twenty years of hidden struggle. Yet the struggle had always balanced out. Over the years they had exchanged coins, gold, dollars, and pounds, and even these exchanges balanced out” (pp. 56–57).

The tipping of the balance finally comes one Yom Kippur when their private ritual of observance is interrupted. Each year on that day they would lay in a store of vodka and tinned foods, close the shutters, get into pajamas, and sleep through the night and the day, arising occasionally to nibble and drink. Their ritual seems to be both a symbolic reenactment of an ordeal of concealment during the war, perhaps years in a bunker, as well as a strategy for avoiding the questions of sin, atonement, and judgment insisted on by the awesome holy day. And it is of course, too, a withdrawal from the world into the security of their own bond. This year, with all the preparations made, Simha fails to come home, and as Baruch lies in the dark, he becomes seized by the painful conviction that his partner, who had borrowed a sum of money from him earlier in the week, has bilked and betrayed him. Toward the end of the day Simha does return and explains that the borrowed money had been for doctors and that his absence was due to a convulsion which had immobilized him all day. The explanations, however, put nothing back together again. The knot has been doubly undone: internally the malevolence of distrust has broken free of its restraints; from the outside, death, so long kept at bay, has also broken through. Though they would outwit it, Yom Kippur has rendered its judgment.

The functional survival of the bond has much to do with the vicissitudes of memory. Staying together depends on a delicate homeostasis between recollection and forgetfulness. An example is the survivors of a town called Soloczin in “Ha'akhsanya'” (“The Inn”) (pp. 35–39). The few left assemble on holidays in the cellar restaurant of Shimon Singer, where Singer's wife, his second, whom he married after the war and not a native of Soloczin, serves them the dishes of the town she has learned to cook from her husband. Beyond the tastes of Soloczin and the very fact that they are natives of the town, they can remember very little else, not even the names they went by there nor their families and their lineages. Singer himself is a partial exception because he is visited by unexpected moments of recollection. On occasion he will lead them in the singing of a suddenly recaptured niggun special to Soloczin, or be able to describe the upper and lower towns, or recall to one amazed member of the group that as the genius son of the town rabbi he used to be called the Yanuka. The survivors of Soloczin are drawn to Singer because of these powers, and as they sit around his table on Sukkot, Hannukah, and Passover they resemble nothing so much as Hasidim at a rebbe's court, brought together not by religious enthusiasm but by the promise of memory.

While memory remains a promise, the bonds of confraternity hold. At Hannukah, the midpoint of the year's cycle, the men of Soloczin enjoy the Appelfeldian moment of grace: “A spirit stirred in their eyes as if in their blind gropings they had sensed intimations” (p. 37). When the intimations deepen into surges of memory, what is brought up from the past is not nostalgia for pleasant melodies and dishes. Characteristically we are not given the content of these recollections and are left to imagine rivalries, betrayals, and losses as the plausible explanations for the behavior that follows. For by Passover they are at each others' throats. The card games erupt in quarrels; Singer has begun to suspect his wife of unspecified infidelities; the Yanuka is tormented for the unsuitability of the woman he has become engaged to marry; and they cease believing in the power of Singer's memory. By Sukkot and the winter the group has disbanded entirely; the last survivors of Soloczin, after all they have lost, have now lost even each other. “They had now drawn deep,” the story concludes, “into their infinite forgetfulness” (p. 39). The opening of memory had been only momentary, but it had been enough to snap the bond and to drive them so deeply into repression as to preclude even the consolations of their guarded companionability.

The message is clear: to remember means to jeopardize the arrangements of one's life. Appelfeld's Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are populated by men who have put their lives back together again after the war, merchants and shopkeepers who have made a go of it and who live lives of moderate habits and measured amusements. Although they are not happy in a conventional sense—they are withdrawn and bear a vague feeling of unworthiness and guilt—they have nevertheless done well for themselves and have control of their lives. Yet the constitution of the Appelfeld world does not permit its subjects to persevere in their evasions, no matter how long established and scrupulously maintained. Something inevitably happens to provoke the past into reasserting itself, not with the sweeping force of a purgation, but with just enough pressure to bring down the foundations of the newly constructed life. The uninvited reassertion of the past can be so sudden and so catastrophic that Appelfeld resorts to the technique of the comic absurd to represent this moment. It comes about in “Ahar hahatunah” (“After the Wedding”) (pp. 141–147) when the story's nameless protagonist seeks to break out of his loneliness by marrying. His bride, Lisia, is an orphan who has wandered through many lands and has just now had the fact of her Jewishness revealed to her by distant relations. “The charm of her strangeness touched my forgetfulness. I fell in love,” says the protagonist (p. 143). Befitting a man marrying in his middle years, he has planned a quiet, private ceremony. But immediately after the hupah he looks around and discovers an immense throng of abandoned celebrants, a group of fiddlers and singers, including a large contingent brought from America by one rich man.

They are all, it turns out, survivors of the town of Rotzov, and according to them, he is the Rotzover, the son and heir to their deceased spiritual leader, the Rabbi of Rotzov; and now the remnant of Rotzov has assembled from around the world to celebrate the marriage of their leader. Does he know that he is the Rotzover? At some level of consciousness the fact of his identity is known to him, but that is all. Rotzov itself and all it means lies in the oblivion over which he has constructed his new life. Passive and stunned, he is handed around from person to person and reminded of names and faces; he remembers no one. They, for their part, feel let down and are certain that he is dissimulating. In “After the Wedding” the betrayal that lurks in the past has to do not with moral transgressions of the war years but with a later abandonment of the leadership of a community. It is, circularly, this defection that has caused the loneliness and shame which this character seeks to escape by falling in love. But his marrying only triggers the exposure of his evasion. He is a man whose secret has been revealed, yet it is a secret which he has long since ceased being able to comprehend.

Even Appelfeld's law has its exceptions. From this bleak, determined world, which is constantly recapturing its escaped prisoners, there is only one way out. It is a path that seems barred to men and opened only to women because they bear a different relationship to memory. The issue is not just the willigness and the capacity to face the past but the question of which past and of the depth of the past: how much of personal history can memory be stretched to include? Appelfeld's men have devoted their best efforts to clinging to a precariously established new life; the past they labor to keep at bay is one-dimensional: the war years and the entailed range of experience between personal loss and personal turpitude. For the women, the past is much less constricted, and this makes the difference. There are several female characters in Foundations of the River who possess this breadth of memory; they are important figures, because in this fictional domain they offer the only models of what it means not only to survive but to succeed in living.

Regina, in the story of that name (pp. 27–31), is the center of one of Appelfeld's surrogate families. There is her husband Zeitchik, who has a small restaurant, and his two waiters, his nephews Misha and Murba; they all went through the war together and continued on together in Israel. All of them are in decline: Regina is an invalid who more and more has had to take to her bed; the two waiters have grown sullen and dispirited under Zeitchik's petty tyranny; and Zeitchik himself is so devoted to Regina that his desperation has grown as her condition worsens. Yet from among them all Regina is an exception. Her decline is only physical; she remains interested in life, vital as a source of strength to the others.

The source of Regina's spiritual invulnerability can be discovered by comparing the divergent ways in which she and Zeitchik (the names are significant) remember the past. Here are his memories:

When he first met Regina she was pretty as a frightened wildflower. They were already dulled and emptied out, with neither language nor love. Misha used to say, like you find everywhere. Murba did not behave well toward her. The evil winds of war, which had blasted everyone, had not skipped her. She had changed along with them, but already then he could see that she could not be humbled as other women. Who then could distinguish between pure and impure, between those who had their ancestors within them and those who go through this life without ancestors, lifeless?

(p. 29)

Zeitchik's rambling, fragmentary associations are as close as any Appelfeld character gets to a direct description of the experience of the war. Nevertheless, even these allusions are enough to evoke a time of universal degredation, dispossession, and cruelty. Although these forces worked on and affected Regina as well, she retained a fundamental dignity that could not be effaced. The basis of her perseverance is linked to her being one of those who have “their ancestors (avot) within them.” Avot can mean fathers, parents, patriarchs, or ancestors, and having the avot within one implies possessing inner resources that derive from an incorporation within the self of the vitality and values of one's family and people. Zeitchik and the others share the fate of those not so endowed.

Zeitchik's recollections dramatize the limitations of his consciousness. His mind does not go back to before the war; he was “dulled and emptied out” in such a way that those earlier human bonds and experiences were lost to him. His life—his non-life, in fact—dates from the war, and the only truly living content in his life lies outside of himself, in the person of Regina. What she remembers as she approaches her death gives an indication of what else is possible:

Her memory became progressively more lucid. Many events flitted through her mind, faraway places and long-passed years. Her recall of names and places was astonishing, and Zeitchik, whose memory was as feeble as an ant's, stood beside her the way that peasants stand tongue-tied beside the post office. These were in fact delirious visions. Her ancestors would appear to her. She would talk with them. Laughing, she would ask questions and answer them. She knew that soon the train would come to a halt; the cars would bang against each other and she would return to the place that she had been cut off from long ago, without Zeitchik, without Murba, without Misha. All this went through her mind without pain. A kind of pity stirred in her for Zeitchik, who had changed without his transformation (shehishtanah belo' shehishtanuto) bringing him tranquility.

(p. 30)

For others of Appelfeld's women remembering is less serene but still life-giving. The capacity for true mourning is what distinguishes Rosa in “Shemesh shel horef” (“Winter Sun”) (pp. 149–157). A waitress in a restaurant, her inner dignity attracts the love of a well-off merchant, a bachelor of middle years, whose emotional life has been frozen since the war. The scene that consummates their love is an all-night vigil in the salon of her pension. Rosa shows him photographs of her lost family and for hours tells him about them, crying and telling. Although he himself can remember nothing, he is drawn to her capacity for memory and emotion as if to a source of his own salvation. The surrender to her love means the collapse of the carefully constructed mercantile ethos that until now has structured his life.

Strength of memory is not just a personal endowment but also a cultural fact. In “The Merchant Bartfuss” (pp. 43–51) it is linked to the differences between East and West. Bartfuss is the scion of an upper-middle-class acculturated Austrian Jewish family who has reconstructed his life in Israel; he has put his excellent commercial instincts to work in building a large and successful retail operation. But like many of Appelfeld's men, he bears a symbolic wound of unspecified origin that seems to result from the shame of something done during the war; gradually he loses interest in the business and, sick and infirm, withdraws to his house. To take care of him the store dispatches Bronka, an ugly, Yiddish-speaking, middle-aged woman. She is the daughter of a shohet; she lost her brother and sisters in the war; and she had been left some time ago by her husband. Though at first Bartfuss is repelled by her appearance and ostjud manner, over time there ensues a reversal of power and desirability. She is a kind woman with unstinting vitality, and to the waning merchant her presence is nearly restorative. Even her Yiddish, a language repugnant to him, comes to seem charmingly musical. “Compared to her speech, his Viennese German sounded artificial and hypocritical” (p. 46). Most of all, the blows and losses she has suffered do not show on her; she manages to live buoyantly in the rhythms of life. The secret of Bronka's indominability lies in her remaining in touch, in her heart and her imagination, with her dead family, with their world, the world of her childhood. In the stories she abundantly tells about life in her village, it is apparent that in some sense her existence is still grounded there. The strength of her prewar Jewishness, a matrix of family bonds and religious faith, has much to do with the quality of her later life. “And if her present life does not match what her father would have wished—well, it is only a temporary passage. In the future she will return to herself” (p. 46).

In the portraits of Regina, Rosa, and Bronka, Appelfeld is clearly making a statement about the capacity of some women to sustain great love and great pain and thus to escape the need for evasion. As a mode of response to catastrophe, the example is not limited to women, nor to individuals. Appelfeld is implying that a national culture is doomed to be subverted from within unless it can do two things: acknowledge and mourn fully and without shame or judgment what was lost, and at the same time maintain a living and affirmative conversation with the cultural world of those who were destroyed. This is a difficult confrontation indeed, and the great majority of Appelfeld's characters do not fear it without reason, but their fates demonstrate how much more frightening are the consequences of declining the encounter.

Reconnecting with the strength of a cultural or family tradition through mourning and memory remains only an imagined possibility. For Appelfeld the writer, like almost all of his characters, it is unavailable altogether. The stories of the sixties resist recalling a personal past; at most they invoke the heavily mythicized ancestral order. When in the seventies Appelfeld returns to the period of childhood before the war in The Age of Wonders it is not the Jewish tradition that is explored but the culture of assimilated Austrian Jewry. To the great tradition of response to catastrophe in Hebrew literature, of which Bialik and Greenberg are the exemplars in the modern period, Appelfeld is an outsider. If he is at all the bearer of a tradition in pre-Holocaust literature, it is the elected patrimony of Kafka's modernism. Appelfeld's stance is reflected in his exquisitely restrained Hebrew style. Given the supercharged associative texture of the Hebrew language, Appelfeld's literary idiom is remarkable in its absence of Judaic allusion. Although the reader will sometimes come across a term that suddenly releases an abundance of subtexts, this explosion of meaning only calls attention to its defamiliarized surroundings. If such native writers as A. B. Yehoshua labor to fashion a detraditionalized Hebrew prose, they struggle to arrive at what is, quite naturally, Appelfeld's point of departure.

The greatest writer of the Holocaust in Hebrew, then, stands apart from Hebrew literary history. This has more to do with the cultural circumstances of Appelfeld's early life than with tendentious statements that are hastily made about modes of writing necessitated by the radical experience of the Holocaust. Explanations, in the end, are less important than achievements. Appelfeld's fiction is a moment of impressive discontinuity in Hebrew literature. Like other strong writers, he initiates his own tradition.


  1. Badenheim 1939 (Boston: Godine, 1980) and The Age of Wonders (Boston: Godine, 1981).

  2. ‘Ashan (Jerusalem, 1962), Bagai’ haporeh (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1963), Kefor ‘al ha’arets (Givatayim-Ramat Gan, 1965), Bekomat hakarka’ (Tel Aviv, 1968), Adenei hanahar (Tel Aviv, 1971). Translations are my own.

  3. See Appelfeld's remarks about his changing attitudes toward Bialik's writings in Masot beguf rish’on (Essays in the First Person) (Jerusalem, 1979), pp. 87–92. On Agnon's A Guest for the Night, pp. 101–108.

  4. The idea of primordial catastrophe (shevirat hakelim) is echoed here. In public lectures Appelfeld has remarked upon the great influence on him of Jewish mysticism as discovered through the writings of Gershom Scholem.

  5. The only other writer in the stories is the sometimes narrator of “Cold Heights” (In the Fertile Valley, pp. 135–153).

Lawrence L. Langer (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5940

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 distinction is at the heart of his imaginative vision. His fiction invites us to experience not catastrophe, but the avoidance of catastrophe, or the silences surrounding it. This obscures but does not negate the catastrophe, which his characters deny or refuse to discuss while his readers sculpt its outlines from the scanty details available in the world of his fiction. His language contains a Janus-like energy, full of hints and portents that never achieve the clarity of expressed meaning. The evidence of hindsight conspires with the absence of foresight to implicate us in the drama of recognition that comprises the essence of his art.

Appelfeld crowds his best-known novella, Badenheim 1939, with narrative ironies that only an informed reader can dispel. Sometimes they appear as simple declarative statements: “The secret was gradually encompassing the people and there was a vague anxiety in the air, born of a new understanding.”1 These are Tantalus sentences, beckoning one toward an unspecified revelation that never achieves expression. “Alien spirits,” “nervous looks” and “distant dreads” infect the text like ripening bacteria, warning of but never naming the disease; we must learn to diagnose as illness what the characters themselves refuse or are unable to see. Echoes of vacancy in the imagery itself urge us to replace absence with content: “The man's voice dripped into him like raindrops pattering into an empty barrel.” (25) How much water is necessary to give substance to empty space? How much insight is required to give catastrophe a discernible shape?

Omens abound to prompt the guests at Badenheim to exercise their prophetic imaginations, but they do not appreciate the clues. They prefer to embrace the self-delusion concealed in platitudinous dialogues like the following, which may sound trite to the retrospective vision but which expose with piercing irony the fatal failure of self-definition that in turn made the victims so vulnerable:

“I am Austrian born and bred, and the laws of Austria apply to me as long as I live.”

“But you also happen to be a Jew, if I'm not mistaken.”

“A Jew. What does that mean? Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what it means?”

“As far as we're concerned,” said Frau Zauberblit, “you can renounce the connection any time you like.”

“That is my argument precisely.”

As if to confirm this delusive failure, a moment later a “strange intimacy descended on the dark lobby, an intimacy without words.” But for Appelfeld one overwhelming revelation of the Holocaust experience is the ease with which unspoken intimacies betray, especially when they are based on traditional assurances like the one expressed in the previous dialogue.

Intimacies without words lead to unexpected consequences, as we learn a few lines later when the schoolgirl's pregnant condition is disclosed: “The people stood around her looking chastised, as if the facts of life had suddenly given them a slap in the face.” (76, 77) The news shatters the twilight hour, but not with the blinding illumination that death as well as life lurks in the future. The so-called facts of life will continue to blur the doom of threatened extinction until the end, inspiring potential victims to substitute visible illusions for invisible threats.

If the unsaid is sayable, is the unseen then seeable? Once more, at least in Badenheim 1939, Appelfeld's fiction divides such questions into two verbal tributaries, one irrigating the minds of his readers, the other drowning the vision of his characters. A line like “And the investigations showed what reality was” defines the division between the two and illustrates the twin momentum of Appelfeld's narrative appeal. We the readers are compelled to reenact the split, since we are armed with insight from our own retrospective prescience while simultaneously sharing the failure of foresight and insight in the orbit of the characters. When “estrangement, suspicion, and mistrust” begin to invade the town, the characters seem to veer toward our orbit; but when we learn that “the people were still preoccupied with their own affairs” (31), we return to the world of the “non-seers.” Experiencing the language of the novel through such alternations, we encounter anew the verbal fervor and the inert irony of an assurance like “the investigations showed what reality was.” This is the challenge facing anyone who enters the realm of the Holocaust: wherein lies its essential reality, and how do we gain access to it?

Appelfeld's lines have a resonance beyond their immediate definition; as he “says,” we are enjoined to “see,” but not just what is before our eyes. The impresario Dr. Pappenheim, as he witnesses the collapse of his tourist season, laments: “If only he had known, he would have designed the whole program differently” (37), and the lament appeals to creators of “reality” at every level: the victim, the reader, the artist, and God Himself. Indeed, “If only he had known” becomes the despondent epigraph and epitaph for all Appelfeld's fictions about the Holocaust. A bitter regret is one of its major legacies, as the vacationers at Badenheim are to learn, and no small source of that regret, as Appelfeld more than once implies, is the neglect of the resonance native to the word.

This ominous drama is played out repeatedly on the stage we call the text. “You can't imagine the feeling of vitality that a stay in Badenheim gives you,” says one of the guests at the resort. “I'm very glad that you decided to stay. It's an event not to be missed.” And this brief dialogue ensues:

“An event?” said Lotte.

“I can't think of a better word. You're sensitive to words, I see.”


A mockery, or a warning? Written with compassion, or scorn? Certainly, exchanges like these are red flags to the reader, urging him to consider the possibility—one of Appelfeld's most insistent themes—that alongside the catastrophe to humanity, the Holocaust decreed a catastrophe to language.

In a remarkable story called “Repetition,” Austrian writer Peter Handke, alluding to the devaluation of language in the modern era, asks whether it wouldn't be wiser, since words had lost their fairy-tale magic, “to say that they performed the function of a questionnaire: What is my situation? What is our situation? What is the present situation?” With insouciant cunning, he alludes to the partial source of that devaluation by asking further: “Didn't the term that in the past century designated only ‘emigration’ lose its innocence now that the events of the last war have changed its meaning to ‘forced resettlement’”?2 Appelfeld's characters in Badenheim 1939 inhabit a verbal world like this, where the dictionary, as it were, still stands on a shelf in the Garden of Eden. Slogans like “Labor is Our Life,” “The Air in Poland is Fresher,” and “The Development Areas Need You” exert a prelapsarian influence on the unwary guests, who accept customary definitions because they are unaccustomed to a life built on precise analysis of what Handke called “the present situation.”

Appelfeld summons us to the avoided task by turning words into vacuums and reminding us bitterly that though nature abhors such environments, human beings at that time apparently did not. He introduces substantives without substance, and makes us wonder why it was so easy to breathe in such stifling surroundings: “The secret was gradually encompassing the people and there was a vague anxiety in the air, born of a new understanding,” or “There was a different quality in the air, a sharp clarity which did not come from the local forests.”3

The nouns pile up like empty threats waiting to be charged with meaning: Secret, anxiety, understanding, quality, clarity. They are like bullets aimed at a target convinced of its immunity, like troops assaulting a Maginot line persuaded that it is invulnerable.

The odd paradox of Appelfeld's novella about blindness to danger is that the vocabulary prods the reader toward insight, as if the clue to future threats came from the words themselves. If the nouns are barren of meaning, they nonetheless solicit epithets to impregnate them and fulfill their portent. Words begin to link up in a verbal union announcing the “differentness of things,” but they occupy an insulated reality:

The light stood still. There was a frozen kind of attentiveness in the air. An alien orange shadow gnawed stealthily at the geranium leaves. The creepers absorbed the bitter, furtive damp.


The verbal pieces seem to resemble familiar patterns, since “frozen,” “alien,” “stealthily,” and “furtive” can be assembled into a kind of descriptive jigsaw puzzle. But in the minds and ears of Appelfeld's characters, they do not interlock: a crucial key is missing. There is no “picture” on the box containing the pieces, reminding us of what they are supposed to look like when they are properly put together. A few lines later we encounter “huddled,” “afraid,” and “sudden,” but they do not solve the mystery either; they only add to the confusion. More than “discovering” the characters' mistake, the reader experiences it: the expectation of pattern, connection, a unified whole is an illusion born of misplaced reliance on the coherence of language itself.

The text is ripe with clues. A musician, told that where they are going he will be a musician still, asks his friend “In that case, why send us there at all?” This leads to the following exchange:

The friend sought an impressive formula. “Historical necessity,” he said. “Kill me, I don't understand it. Ordinary common sense can't comprehend it.” “In that case, kill your ordinary common sense and maybe you'll begin to understand.”


A central dynamic of Badenheim 1939 (as well as of other Appelfeld fictions) is the tension between language as “impressive formula” and words as exhausted content. When the famous reciting twins finally perform at the spa, “Their mastery was such that the words did not seem like words at all: they were as pure and abstract as if they had never been touched by human mouths.” By the end of their performance, “the words did their work alone, flying through the air like birds on fire.” (101) Somewhere between language as impressive formula and words untouched by human mouth (and hence untouchable by human comprehension) lies that realm of expression where the artist forges his sinister implications and verbal ambiguities—the realm, indeed, of Appelfeld's art.

The challenge to the guests at Badenheim—one they fail to meet—is to free themselves from the prison of impressive formulas. Though their lives are in danger, they feel safe between the covers of their trusty thesaurus. “The sun was still shining,” says Appelfeld, “but the angry people clung stubbornly to the old words, hoarding them like antiquated gadgets that had gone out of use.” Though “words without bodies floated in the lobby,” no one recognizes the odd phenomenon—how does one begin? Eventually, “word” becomes one of the novel's characters too, more aware of its displacement, because of Appelfeld's manipulations, than the characters are of their own. Words know about themselves, and we know about them—that they have lost their roots: “The words did not seem to belong to the present. They were the words of the spring, which somehow lingered on, suspended in the void” (115, 117). Such language is designed to alarm the reader's consciousness; but it lulls the unsuspecting victim in Badenheim into lassitude, till the impulse to sleep and silence replaces the will to speech and significant action.

Both dialogue and commentary contribute to this tension between formula and verbal misunderstanding, as the shadow of Franz Kafka hovers smiling in the wings. “I'm not to blame for anything,” cries one of the imminent victims. “It's not a question of crime,” replies another (cousin to Joseph K. in The Trial), “but of a misunderstanding. We too, to a certain extent, are the victims of a misunderstanding.” The world of Kafka infiltrates Appelfeld's novel still further when the narrative voice explains, perhaps too lucidly, “The words procedure and appeal seemed to satisfy him. He had apparently once studied law. He calmed down a little. The contact with the old words restored him to his sanity.” (123) “Crime,” “misunderstanding,” “appeal”—Kafka has already taught us how futile is the search for these terms in the glossary of atrocity, in a world where victims are unreasonably accused and unseasonably condemned. One of Appelfeld's most remarkable achievements is his ability to adapt the unspecified threats shaping Kafka's dark vision to the specific perils of the Holocaust universe. In the absence of a vocabulary to warn, the “old words” soothe their users into a fatally vulnerable state. Is this one of Appelfeld's solutions to the enduring enigma of how it could have happened in the first place?

If the various self-delusions that left the victims unprepared reflect a psychological condition, that condition, Appelfeld insists, was inflamed by the virus of language. Unnerved by the approaching uncertainties, the guests at Badenheim turn upon each other, with the former impresario Dr. Pappenheim bearing much of the opprobrium. As the human alienation intensifies, as the pastry shop owner declares his own innocence while suggesting that “the east” is the right place for Pappenheim, words too are transformed, their link to meaning disintegrating. While the pastry shop owner vainly invents distinctions between “this” kind of Jew and “that” kind of Jew, “There was a stubborn rhythm in his voice and from the hotel lobby it sounded like someone shouting slogans over a loudspeaker.” (142) From the victims' point of view—and this is the one that Appelfeld has always been most concerned with—here is the culprit. Slogans deaden the sensibilities of intended victims, even as they “justify” the behavior of the persecutors and nurture indifference in the bystanders. When the “filthy freight cars” appear at the end of Badenheim 1939, the victims are left speechless, except for Pappenheim's pathetically irrelevant observation that dirty coaches must mean that they haven't far to go. The triumph of the enemy means the end of human differentiation, as the former guests are “all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel.” (175)

Appelfeld's fiction may be seen as variations on a single theme, as victims or survivors struggle to adapt to the one event forming the subsequent or prior nucleus of their lives—the Holocaust. If Badenheim 1939 chronicles the doom of an entire community, Tzili narrates the fate of one person's estrangement from that community, of a search for contact that never succeeds, of a solitary mind contending with the dilemma of the displaced self. Unlike the guests at Badenheim, Tzili wanders across the countryside during the years of the war in a realm where threats abound while forms of defense diminish. As time passes, we experience the consequences of the situation sketched in Badenheim: the futile and fatal influence of verbal formula for existence.

The myth of the inviolable self is part of the romantic heritage of western civilization. Despite his failing health, an ironic reminder of the “dis-ease” implicit in his words, Tzili's father attempts to refute her limitations (thereby perpetuating the myth) with the formula “If you want to you can.”4 It wasn't a judgment, we are told, but a faith, uniting the entire family. Dependence on such formulae slowly undermined one's ability to function in the world of atrocity. The theme is more insistent in Tzili than in any other of Appelfeld's works. Summoned to instruct her in her prayers, a religious tutor asks her “in the traditional, unvarying formula: ‘What is man?’” and Tzili replies “Dust and ashes.” (5) But language that once defined human nature and its relationship to spirit prompts routine responses here, instead of insight. The catechism about prayer and obeying the commandments of the Torah awakens “loud echoes in Tzili's soul, and their reverberations spread throughout her body” (6); but the description mocks the mystic moment, since Tzili is shortly to be abandoned by her family and left totally vulnerable to a hostile environment.

Slogans that in normal times sustain the unexamined life thread the narrative like hopeful detours to security. “Women are lucky,” Tzili remembers having been told. “They don't have to go to war.” (56) “Without cigarettes there's no point in living” (73) exclaims Mark, the father of Tzili's unborn child. They are verbal pathways leading to a dead end, language at cross-purposes with the particular reality of the Holocaust, as is stingingly confirmed for us (if not for Tzili) by the “encouraging” words she receives from the nurse when her baby is in fact born dead:

You must be strong and hold your head high. Don't give yourself away and don't show any feelings. What happened to you could have happened to anyone. You have to forget. It's not a tragedy. You're young and pretty. Don't think about the past. Think about the future. And don't get married.


“You have to forget. It's not a tragedy. You're young and pretty.” The nurse disappears from the novel, but her rote consolations achieve a voice of their own, having been successfully delivered while the life in Tzili's womb dies. It dies because the language necessary to animate it has been stillborn first. Behind such well-intentioned but misguided-formulas cower the despair and futility of the Holocaust-haunted spirit.

If Tzili had been designed as a traditional Bildungsroman, then Appelfeld's beleaguered adolescent would have discovered a new and vital language to express her private vision of reality. But Appelfeld parodies the form: no sooner does a formulaic principle register itself in Tzili's consciousness (and the reader's too) than its opposite appears, undermining the stability of language, of consciousness, of the very structure of the novel. Beyond mere platitude is the terrifying sense that words no longer match the reality of things, impeding the most elementary efforts at comprehension, to say nothing of defending one's life. When reality steals on you unawares, as it does on Tzili and Mark, what support can one fall back on? “Death isn't as terrible as it seems,” says Mark. “A man, after all, is not an insect. All you have to do is overcome your fear.” (101) How far have we traveled from Tzili's father's advice that “If you want to you can”? At first, Tzili is not encouraged by Mark's formula for survival, although he repeats it as he is about to leave for provisions: “Once you conquer your fear everything looks different.” (103) When he doesn't return on time, his words prop up her failing spirits, giving her back a kind of confidence: “Mark's voice came to her and she heard: ‘A man is not an insect. Death isn't as terrible as it seems.’” (106) Tzili clings to the possibility of Mark's return, though by now we have learned that words offered in conviction do not need to represent truth. His refrain becomes a dirge, an ironic epitaph, as it returns in her dreams: “Death is not as terrible as it seems. All you have to do is conquer your fear.” (114) The formula achieves a kind of closure when Tzili utters it herself, as a principle of her being, to a group of refugees who apparently have survived an ordeal far worse than hers: “I'm not afraid,” she says. “Death is not as terrible as it seems.” (120) One is reminded of Paul Celan's sinister refrain in “Todesfuge”: “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland.” But Tzili has never read Celan, nor discovered, as he had, how atrocity had rotted the bond joining language to truth.

For a single moment in Tzili, it seems as if formula has finally been replaced by a resounding truth, as one of the refugees announces: “Death will follow us all our lives, wherever we go. There'll be no more peace for us.” (160) Surely here language has shaped a durable insight, sturdy enough to pass the test of platitude. But the principle of alternating viewpoints that dominates the novel forbids any such dramatic climax as this. Scarcely a page later, the summer sun works its magic and real pleasures return, “as if the years in the camps had vanished without a trace.” (163) Onto the screen of reality Appelfeld projects two images, sometimes overlapping, sometimes distinct, but always present: Normal existence, with its hopes and illusions (“Death isn't as terrible as it seems. … Once you conquer your fear everything looks different.”) and the soiling vision of Holocaust fact (“Death will follow us all our lives. … There'll be no more peace for us”).

Each image imposes part of its contour on the other, so that neither is ever entirely uncontaminated. If utopian hopes precede and follow nightmare, nightmare nonetheless casts its shadows on both. One day Tzili is convinced that Mark and the others will return; the next, she realizes that her search and her expectation are in vain. Naive consciousness contends with a dark history in a never-ending effort to recover the impossible. Oblivion and memory establish a constant flow in the narrative: shall we reclaim a ruined past, engage in drunken and forgetful revelry in the present, or set out in sober quest of a reborn future? Lacking the inner resources to shape her own life, but still a victim and survivor, Tzili clings to the shreds of promise served up to her by others. “In Palestine everything will be different” (182) is only the last but certainly not the best of the formulas—this one containing its share of ambiguity—that thwart her quest for equilibrium.

Some refugees dance, others play cards or sleep, still others choose suicide. Explanations for their behavior only confuse Tzili, who never is able to reconcile language with her experience. A failed Bildungsroman (as any novel of the Holocaust must be), an adventure in dis-education, Tzili quietly rejects the form in fiction that weds speech to insight and makes character growth the test of a successful imaginative version of reality. Tzili listens to speakers heralding “the agonies of rebirth in Palestine” (182), but the whole momentum of the novel has warned us against such bland formulations. “Birth” in any of its combinations no longer exists outside the orbit of “death”; the Holocaust has cancelled an essential feature of vocabulary, the principle of antonyms.

Therefore, when at the end one of the refugees with Tzili calls out “We've had enough words. No more words,” she acts not as a mouthpiece for Appelfeld, but for a point of view that has been rumbling beneath the crust of the text from the beginning. The Holocaust has taught us to mistrust not only what we hear, but what we have heard. Tzili disgorges this meaning despite its lonely and unresponsive “heroine,” who like us listens to its ultimate expression from other lips, not, as one might expect, from her own: “I'm declaring a cease-words. It's time for silence now.” (182) What appears to have been a narrative of survival turns out to be equally a chronicle of loss: neither exists apart from the other. The refugee who utters these sentiments adds “Phooey. This rebirth makes me sick” (182), and then takes Tzili under her wing, as if to prepare her for the journey to the Holy Land that may never be a homeland. At least, we are cautioned to be wary of our epithets, lest we betray the ordeal of Tzili and her fellow survivors. This character, about whom we learn only in the novel's closing pages, represents a fusion of attitudes that prepares us to confront the trial she and the others have endured: “She had no regrets. There was a kind of cruel honesty in her brown eyes.” (184) The oxymoron will prove surprising only to those who have not followed Appelfeld's scrupulous habit of forcing words into complicity with each other. Cease-words (another oxymoron?) and silence are only a prelude to the cleansing of the cluttered imagination, cluttered by verbal formulas designed for reassurance more than truth, an honesty amputated from cruelty—a desirable eventuality, perhaps, but one forbidden by the shadows which continue to stalk Tzili despite her wish to escape them.

Badenheim 1939 is a story of relocation leading to destruction. Tzili is a story of dislocation leading to another kind of relocation. In a sense, at least for our purpose of understanding some kind of progression in Appelfeld's use of the Holocaust in his fiction, The Immortal Bartfuss permits a rounding out the interpretive cycle I have been pursuing. A survivor like Tzili, Bartfuss has been living in the land for which Tzili was about to depart; his fate allows us to test the ambiguous promise that in Palestine “everything will be different.”

Is there meaning simply in safe refuge? Has Bartfuss, among Jews, achieved the equilibrium denied to the guests at Badenheim and to Tzili amongst the refugees? Bartfuss, at least, has experienced the somber tones of Celan's Deathfugue; we have his creator's word to confirm it. “The survivor, Bartfuss,” said Appelfeld in a recent interview with Philip Roth, “has swallowed the Holocaust whole, and he walks about with it in all his limbs. He drinks the ‘black milk’ of the poet Paul Celan, morning, noon and night. He has no advantage over anyone else, but he still hasn't lost his human face. That isn't a great deal, but it's something.”5 This is a minimal tribute, perhaps; but one must turn to the text to determine how having “swallowed the Holocaust whole” affects one's spiritual digestion.

One must proceed with caution. Bartfuss himself is wary of those who would make him into a legend. Although he internalizes his ordeal, he rarely talks about it. He may have changed, but he will not be changed by others. “They need legends too,” he thinks, “heroes, splendid deeds. So they could say, ‘There were people like that too.’ In fact they didn't know a thing about Bartfuss. Bartfuss scrupulously avoided talking about the dark days. Not even a hint.”6 He even resents the appellation “immortal,” which is someone else's invention. He knows how impurities in language can lead to impurities in life. And he is reduced to silence no less by the awe of others than by the scars of his inner wounds. “He withdrew, and words he had once used withered inside him.” (61) But the gnawing remnants of his unexpressed past, though muted, have not been silenced; like embers that will not be extinguished, they flare up at odd moments unprovoked. Appelfeld's narrative documents the pain of not being able to share this recurrent inner turmoil.

In a stark reversal of romantic doctrine, the self has grown inviolable through violation, not organic contact with the world of nature and spirit. Bartfuss will not tolerate further violations. Hence his conviction (mistaken, but understandable, Appelfeld would imply) that “People were born for solitude. Solitude was their only humanity.” (100) The loneliness thrust on Tzili by her environment becomes the inner landscape of Bartfuss's life, internalized by him in a way that substitutes conversations with himself for the social discourse he never can encompass. What appear to us as monologues are dialogues to him; words are his companions, and language the obstacle that prevents him from breaking out of his isolation. This paradox is the secret of his being.

Others may dream of human contacts; Bartfuss does not. Enveloped by his loneliness upon wakening, he dimly recalls an encounter with language: “A few words, which he had apparently used in his sleep, skimmed over his tongue. Their warmth still lingered.” (68) But the words left over from sleep do not help him in his daily contacts: “years of silence, revulsion, and abstention had brought him close to no one.” (70) The two words, “in Italy,” which ought to unite old acquaintances who once shared the intimacies of this remembered locale, only alienate them further. Bartfuss's few efforts to reawaken memories of the post-Holocaust days “in Italy” only meet with hostility; and when others attempt the same with him, he rebuffs them. One of these encounters ends with Bartfuss angry and his interlocutor withdrawing “like someone caught in the wrong jurisdiction.” (74) In fact, Bartfuss and the other survivors are caught in two jurisdictions, and that is their problem. Like Tzili, Bartfuss has his hopeful moments, which inspire him to far more articulate aspirations than her limited imagination is capable of: “Now he would devote himself to the general welfare, he would mingle, inspire faith in people overcome by many disasters. He would no longer think of himself, his agony, but would work for the general good.” (75) But at this point he lacks the word “generosity” (which he will wrestle with later) to enable these dim impulses to coalesce into action. The word “labor,” he discovers, smells like distilled alcohol. It is one of those old words upon which the Holocaust has cast a shadow. Accordingly, his efforts to translate his new interest in general welfare into genuine intimacy with Schmugler, another survivor, are greeted with chill indifference, and in his frustration Bartfuss watches his words turn into blows.

The other jurisdiction that Bartfuss inhabits promotes different rules and leads to the disjunction isolating him in his prison of the alternately remembered and avoided past. The very language of Tzili infiltrates his imagination, the legacy of the Holocaust thus pursuing him through literature as well as through life. For a moment, Bartfuss too turns critic, offering us a retrospective analysis of Tzili's dilemma that is not so far removed from his own: “The people who were in the camps won't betray their obligations. There are sacred debts. A man is not an insect [Mark's very words, in Tzili]. The fear of death is no disaster. Only when one has freed himself of that fear can one go forth to freedom.” (94) In the very process of repeating the earlier language, Bartfuss reveals himself as a man besieged by a vocabulary he simultaneously longs to, and no longer can believe in. Appelfeld is specific about this inner conflict: “His own words and those of others teemed within him and ravaged him, and for a long time the words rolled about within his brain as if on wheels.” (94) A battlefield would be an equally adequate image. How does one pay homage to those dead without betraying them—or oneself? Like Tzili again, Bartfuss suffers from fatigue because of his embattled situation—he is often on the verge of sleep.

Bartfuss cannot share his knowledge that “man as insect” and “fear of death” are verbal formulations that the Holocaust has polluted beyond articulation. Although the Holocaust context of their special demise continues to affront his memory, in his other “jurisdiction,” as a resident of Jaffa in the contemporary world, he needs remnants of that vocabulary to go on living. His mistress Sylvia, another survivor, offers him what she calls a “word for yourself” (101)—resilience—from which he recoils, denying in conversation with another the very need he admits through his inner dialogue. But Sylvia's words seem to thaw some of his numbness, since after her death, at her funeral, in a cemetery where “not a word was heard,” he suddenly pluralizes his dilemma by asking another mourner “What have we Holocaust survivors done? Has our great experience changed us at all?” (107) A new word falls unfamiliarly from Bartfuss's lips—“I expect generosity of them,” he says (107—but Appelfeld refuses to permit this apparently transformative moment to sentimentalize his fiction. Seeds the reader expects to germinate are killed by the fungus that feeds on hope; the next chapter begins: “After Sylvia's death no change took place in his life.” (108)

But a kind of resilience has nonetheless taken root in Bartfuss, and the closing chapters of Appelfeld's narrative admit some narrow rays of light into his consuming inner darkness. The survivors he now meets, though they don't all remember him, no longer deny that they remember “Italy,” a pivotal locale for Bartfuss between the camps and Palestine, the place where the certainty of death and the possibility of rebirth first contended for primacy in his mind. Does Bartfuss see an image of himself in Clara, who insists that “there really were two Claras, a selfish Clara who wasted most of her money on cosmetics and fashionable dresses; and, alongside her, another Clara, a hidden one, whose heart went out to anyone who came near”? (114) One of the Holocaust's enduring legacies is precisely this principle of the divided self, and Bartfuss's recognition of how Clara has managed her split nurtures his own resolve “to be generous and not stringy.” (115)

Is this merely another formula, disguised as a guide to action? On the one hand, Bartfuss himself regards it as “a good slogan” (115); on the other, he seems driven by a need “to be close to the people from whom he had distanced himself.” (116) Does this mean his family, from whom he is estranged, or the community of survivors, toward whom he has made tentative gestures throughout the novel? He tries first with his retarded daughter Bridget, but in spite of his good will, his efforts to rehabilitate generosity encounter the familiar obstacles of silence and the past. “Words had gone dumb within him,” Appelfeld writes, while Bridget's appearance, her dull eyes and full breasts and bewildered expression only remind him of the passive casual women he had had on the beach in Italy. The reality of “in Italy” intrudes even here, defeating his resolution to improve his behavior as a father.

Nevertheless, Bartfuss feels a “strange closeness” to his daughter, though wounded words like “mercy” and “generosity” that emerge from the final pages of the narrative, as well as some that are implied, like “gratitude” and “forgiveness,” continue to elude his efforts to wed consciousness to conduct and heal the split within. If in the beginning was the expulsion, the disavowal of community that we saw dramatized in Badenheim 1939, the alpha of destruction that soiled the lexicon of human behavior, the omega that will remedy time past, mend the present, and promote a convalescent future still beckons in the distance. Like the words of love that Hans Castorp whispers as he slodges through the mud on the battlefields of World War I, the Omega watch which Bartfuss has bought for his daughter but not yet presented to her may augur some meaning for his still unravelling fate. But the final image of the novel is sleep, and though the ironies of art may have secured Appelfeld a tranquil rest, we have no such reassurance for Bartfuss—or for ourselves.7


  1. Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939, trans. Dalya Bilu (New York: Pocket Books, 1980), p. 53. Subsequent citations will be included in the text.

  2. Peter Handke, “Repetition,” The New Yorker (Feb. 29, 1988), pp. 34–35.

  3. Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939, p. 53.

  4. Aharon Appelfeld, Tzili: The Story of a Life, trans. Dalya Bilu (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 3. Subsequent citations will be included in the text.

  5. Philip Roth, “A Talk with Aharon Appelfeld,” The New York Times Book Review (February 28, 1988), p. 31.

  6. Aharon Appelfeld, The Immortal Bartfuss, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), p. 61. Subsequent citations will be included in the text.

  7. For a valuable study of Appelfeld's use of language in two other novels, The Age of Wonders and Mikhvat Haor [Searing Light], as well as important commentary on the literary challenges facing exiled writers, see Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi, “Aharon Appelfeld: The Search for a Language,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry, I (1984), pp. 366–380.

James Hatley (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6320

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 Poland. Poised on the brink of their extermination in one of the death-camps and yet surreptitiously conspiring to remain ignorant of their fate, these fictional characters spend an evening celebrating this small bit of life they must leave behind:

Every word that was said aroused her laughter. “Why are you laughing?” asked Sally.

“For no reason. Just because people make me laugh.”

But the liqueur did not bring gaiety. The people sank deeper into the armchairs. The light from the lamps poured onto the floor as from a broken tube. The colored wall, adorned with reproductions, seemed to come alive: it was as if dormant veins had started to throb in it. Nocturnal shadows slunk against the windows and a fat fly beat against the screen. If there were any words left they belonged to Salo. But Salo did not speak. A kind of smile split open on his forehead. An evil smile, smeared there with poisonous paint.

The lights grew dimmer, and delicate sounds invaded the room from outside. It seemed that the country parlor was already living a life of its own, a life without people.

“The emigration procedures seem very efficient—very efficient indeed, if I may say so,” said Dr. Pappenheim.


In this passage, the narrator's voice recounts the dissolution of bodies, their transformation into silence, into nothingness, long before their arrival at those death-camps where they would be summarily slaughtered and burned or covered over with earth until they disappeared with an entirety that is still difficult to imagine. Indeed, even the shadows playing across the windows of this cozy scene have more substantiality than the human bodies that remain undescribed and sinking like phantoms into their respective armchairs. All about them the world blossoms in lurid fecundity—even the room grows veins and assumes a life of its own, one “without people.”

For Badenheim's narrator precisely these human bodies conversing on this quiet evening will be annihilated and so cannot in retrospect appear in the scene recorded above. In spite of the consistent appeal to description (although often laconic and fragmented) which characterizes the style of the narration, the contours of bodies, their weight and textures, are uniformly lacking throughout the novel. True, cigarettes are smoked, food is smacked upon, skull caps are worn, chairs are sunk into, but nowhere (or almost nowhere and the exceptions most often prove the rule) does the body become palpable either to the vision or touch of the narrator. Instead the narrator speaks of how the people of Badenheim “sink into themselves,” how their forms “hug the walls like shadows,” even as the things of the village, its fountains and rooms, its trees and lights are imbued with an hallucinatory quality, precisely because their evocation is so vivid, so couched in what must be inferred to be the sensuous, bodily awareness of the narrator.

That the bodies of those who are soon to be exterminated pale beside the place in which they reside holds the implicit acknowledgement of the narrator that he cannot report to the reader who those bodies actually were. The commemoration of Auschwitz confronts those who would remember the body of the deceased with that peculiar death which is in fact no death at all but an annihilation, i.e. in which the body is not only murdered but disappears from the memory of all those who would have mourned it—disappears, because not only the deceased dies, but all those who would have remained to name the deceased, to linger with his or her memory “in a mode of respectful solicitude,” have also disappeared (Heidegger 282).2 Like the fictional narrator, we non-fictional readers seek to remember the dead whose bodies have disappeared because not only the bodies but also the memories of those bodies were annihilated.

Yet, even as the body's substantiality evades the grasp of the narrator's voice, descriptions of faces proliferate. Everywhere within Appelfeld's novel faces appear and speak but as faces without bodies, i.e. the faces of shadows, of ghosts. These are the faces of the once-living, brought into the world of fiction, but a fiction seeking to memorialize the non-fictive dead of a non-fictive event, the Shoah, the Holocaust, die Endlösung. Thus, the faces of Badenheim are the faces of ghosts—but ghosts of whom it can now be said that even when they lived they already lacked a body, i.e. lacked the possibility of being remembered by other bodies who would survive and carry on the virtual body of the deceased. The faces of Badenheim are then less openings into the body's flesh, its life, and more the mask of a nothingness which has slowly encroached upon the body, eating away its vitality, its life, its expectation to be remembered. Salo's face, which no longer speaks but is “split open” by a “kind of smile,” one “smeared there with poisonous paint,” serves as the perfect icon for that conversation on the eve of deportation in which the excuse that one laughs “for no reason,” only seeks to cover over the horror of one's accelerating disappearance.

A face such as Salo's finds a horrifying counterpart in the face of Trude, who at the novel's beginning, before the arrival of the faceless Sanitation Department (whose job is to surreptitiously organize the Jews for shipment to Auschwitz), is haunted by hallucinations, entirely consumed with the memory of her dead parents and close to death herself. As a continually repressed but growing horror overwhelms the occupants of the resort, as they begin to appeal to any fabrication, any diversion, to escape the confrontation with the annihilation that the increasingly constricted and peculiar nature of their imprisonment portends, Trude regains her health and becomes a seer, one whose stories of the fabulous land of the Poland of her childhood now become a source of hope for her husband. The narrator comments: “When she spoke about Poland her eyes lit up, and the sorrow was erased from her brow. A new, young skin seemed to be growing over her face. She laughed” (118). Here again, the laughter of willed illusions, this time imbued with a growing health reserved only for the face of that one for whom the pathology of diversion and fabrication has become the very mode of her existence. A savage irony permeates such a reversal.

The faces of Badenheim are affixed to bodies whose future is in the process of collapsing, i.e. to bodies whose expectations are becoming so confused within a maze of diversions and dissemblances, that even as the form of expectation continues, even as Trude chatters on about Poland and the Nazis hang up posters advising the Jews of the appealing nature of Slavic culture, expectation altogether ceases to exist. But the collapse of expectation does not end with these illusions, with the inconsequential conversations of the moment (and one here is reminded of Heidegger's notion of “idle talk”) that dominate the life of Badenheim. We who read in the wake of their disaster are only too aware that what the inmates of Badenheim seek to deny is far more terrible than they could have ever formulated. The narrator's descriptions continually appeal to the reader to compare her or his retrospective knowledge of Auschwitz to the pretense of expectation that the characters enact. To speak of Salo's face as split open by a smile is to lead the reader to remember that even as Salo sat in his chair, he will already have been extinguished, that for his Nazi captors he had already become no more than a vermin to be disposed of, a poisonous, sub-human thing whose face was less a face than an orb split by the opening of the mouth. We who read now are reminded again and again of that which we would be all too happy to deny: since the bodies of the Jews of Badenheim lived in a world without a future in which one's presence will have been remembered, the thought of their having been a body ceased and ceases to be meaningful.

Thus, the narrative strategy of Appelfeld suggests that the collapse of memory leads to the collapse of embodiment, that he or she who lives after Auschwitz might seek to remember its victims but is so removed, so distanced from these annihilated bodies, that the account of their death must become a fiction, an imagining of bodies emptied of their palpability.

But let one be clear here about what is meant by the collapse of memory. It would be silly to suggest that a meaningful death requires that specific survivors be able to recite a chronology of one's important achievements, of one's central conflicts, of one's embarrassing failures. Rather, memory implies that there will be survivors, i.e. other bodies, whose memories serve as sites for the introjection of the dead person's body. In this way, the bodies of the living carry on the body of the other past his or her death. Such a memory is not simply the story one tells about the other, but more importantly the capability of telling that story, since the other has in some manner become a part of one's own body. It is such bodies that the retrospectively “dead” of Badenheim lack—their memory is impoverished, a merely literal memory, a memory of words written and read by we who know what happened to these others and who empathize with their plight but fail to have any access to that plight beyond the poiesis, the making of a fictive body, a body's exemplar.

On the other hand, the perhaps not fictive bodies of those who might have actually died at the end of that fateful train ride from Badenheim to the promised land of Poland are no longer palpable, because they are no longer and never were remembered palpably. But again one must be clear about what the palpable is. After all, the bodies of the normally dead, of those dead by whom, in Heidegger's formulation, we might “linger” [Verweilen],3 are also in the process of losing their palpability (282). The surface of the corpse immediately begins to decompose, is immediately without response and no longer is hooked into the circuit of touching/touched, of seeing/seen that would characterize the flesh of Merleau-Ponty's rewriting of Heideggerian ontology. How then can one argue that the dead remain palpable and that precisely the loss of this palpability is what makes Badenheim so monstrous, so unimaginable?


But the corpse is not the only aspect of the body which finds its place in the act of mourning—there is also, as Freud himself suggests (in both “Trauer und Melancholie” and later with greater emphasis in “Die Zerlegung der psychischen Persönlichkeit”4) the body of the survivor, of he or she who mourns. This body serves as the site of an introjection, what Freud called “identification” [Identifizierung] in which the ego finds itself adjusting to the lost “other” [ein Fremdes] so that it “behaves as the other, imitates it, so to speak absorbs it” (“Die Zerlegung” 69). In the interpretation of Freud offered here,5 memory is the othering of the body, the assertion of what Freud would call “die gesonderte Existenz” (“Die Zerlegung” 65), the split existence, of the ego-body, in which psychic surface folds over against psychic surface and so finds itself other to itself, away from itself, duplicitous.6 In the body of the dead enfolded within the body of the survivor, in the gestures and habits, the memories and emotive responses that the deceased instigated, modelled, inscribed, the body of the deceased remains palpable and survives its own death. Such a body becomes the gift of the deceased, an important, if not essential, part of his or her ethical bequeathal to succeeding generations.

This aspect of the body of the deceased, the body introjected, is lacking in our memory of the small group of not quite fictive bodies that populated not quite fictive Badenheim. Insofar as Badenheim is fictive, it becomes an exemplar, a generalization of experience in which the very palpability of memory has disappeared. This is the Badenheim that the reader knows, even before he or she reads this novel, i.e. Badenheim 1939 as the exemplar for the historical Auschwitz and the other death-camps where so many millions of humans, in Primo Levi's words, filed into “nothingness” (Survival in Auschwitz 49).7 Indeed without this knowledge, in which public memory does its best to commemorate the horror of Auschwitz, the devastating ironies of the novel that rely upon an implied second level of privileged knowledge in the reader disappear. Yet to read Badenheim 1939 requires that one at least desires to resist the fictive nature of these bodies and to attempt the impossible, namely, to linger mournfully alongside the corpses of these deceased who have left no palpable memory behind. In pursuit of this impossible task, what the reader encounters is not memory but the ghost of memory, i.e. a memory that is stunned, questioned, made uneasy by its incapacity to remember palpably, to remember bodily.

If the narrator is unable to mourn, if these bodies disappear beyond memory, Appelfeld's gesture of remembering that one cannot remember seems futile. Nevertheless, precisely the futility of this gesture and the uneasiness it engenders within those who come after Auschwitz comprises the only act of memory that might address the loss of those who have disappeared.

In coming to this realization, one is brought to distinguish between two dimensions of mourning the dead, one of which has collapsed but the other of which continues in the wake of those who disappeared at Auschwitz. The ontological dimension of mourning, in which the memory of the dead serves as a profound psychic inheritance helping to engender the self of the living, no longer is possible when the very survivors who would have benefited from such memories have also disappeared. But the mourning of the annihilated of Auschwitz also possesses an ethical dimension in which the living respond to the evidence that annihilation has occurred. Such evidence functions as indexical8 rather than palpable memory insofar as it points out that the annihilated suffered and that their suffering cannot become one's own, no matter how ardently one cares for those who have disappeared. Badenheim 1939 assumes that the reader has already confronted such indexes of annihilation, that he or she has seen pictures or at least heard accounts of burnt out synagogues, of crematoria, of numbers tattooed on skin, of piles of shoes, of walls pockmarked with bullet holes, of mass-graves where the ashes of a thousand bodies are buried in a space no larger than a house garden. By keeping such indexical memories of Auschwitz in mind, the reader of Badenheim's narrative gains that ironically doubled vision discussed earlier in which the massive loss during the Holocaust of palpable memory, of a memory that would have engendered a new generation, gains some significance.

Indexical memories are important in any death. For this reason, a tombstone, a photograph, various effects, a room where he or she once slept, become important indicators that the dead who once existed are no longer living. The remembrance of the dead must also address and be addressed by the impossibility that one's memory can ever bring the dead back to life. In doing so, the living recognize that their benefit, their inheritance, comes precisely by means of what the dead have lost. One's memory may honor the dead but the otherness of the dead remains. The dead of Auschwitz, even more than the dead of more normal times, sink into a past from which they cannot return and so trouble those who mourn, those who remain after to ponder the dead.

Freud gives an important hint as to the nature of such uneasiness, insofar as he links the first emergence of alienation in the life of the personality with the development of the super-ego. If one reads Freud carefully on the mode of its development, one finds that such alienation is first experienced not through identification with the other but through a loss of the other—a loss whose trace consisted in the formation of a conscience, a structure of identification which itself disrupted the projects of the ego with the claim of the other. In this disruption, the pleasure principle is “dethroned” and replaced with the “reality-principle,” in which the otherness of the “outerworld” and its inhabitants must be continually reconfronted and reassessed (“Die Zerlegung” 82). In this loss that provokes the first instance of identification, a disturbance in the life of the person is announced whose effect was only provisionally accommodated in the super-ego and whose final accommodation escapes the project of identification at every turn. One can conclude that the irrevocability of loss is assumed throughout Freud's account of mourning, although its thematization is always tempered by the activity of the ego to recoup as much as possible from such loss.

Freud argues in his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”9 that the ethical project of the self is the result of a long and unfinished evolutionary development which is repeatedly provoked by the self's confrontation with exteriority and the loss it implies:

The influences of civilization cause an ever-increasing transformation of egoistic trends into altruistic and social ones by an admixture of erotic elements. In the last resort it may be assumed that every internal compulsion which makes itself felt in the development of human beings was originally, that is, in the history of mankind, only an external one. Those who are born today bring with them as an inherited organization some degree of tendency (disposition) towards the transformation of egoistic into social instincts, and this disposition is easily stimulated into bringing about that result. A further portion of this instinctual transformation has to be accomplished during the life of the individual himself. So the human being is subject not only to the pressure of his immediate environment, but also to the influence of the cultural history of his ancestors.


The ethical dimension of human existence, the acknowledgement of the other, is not inborn but occurs through the building up of “civilized behaviors and insights” which in turn are imparted from one generation to the next in the development of a conscience within the organism, of which the establishment of the super-ego is only the first tentative step. Such a conscience is fragile, precisely because it sets itself at odds with the self's more “natural” tendencies in the dawning recognition of the other's exteriority. Thus, Freud argues that the ethical strivings of human beings are provisional in nature—they are secured only insofar as individuals or the culture in which the psyche is fostered work to adapt the psyche or the various cultural institutions surrounding it to the address of the other. There is no ideal ground for ethics, no innate predisposition that brings the self to the other. Rather, the other interrupts the predispositions of the id for anonymous pleasure and questions its universal drive for satisfaction. It is this very interruption which brings the self into existence. Freud argues that the lack of any ideal ground for ethics makes the ethical achievement of any culture all the more significant.

The vulnerability of the dead of Badenheim 1939 to annihilation, to the loss of their palpable memory, is a disturbing reminder that without the sustained struggle of humans to respond to others, to live ethically, the very possibility of a death in which one will give over one's memories for the good of others disappears. After Auschwitz, one not only mourns the disappearance of the dead, but also the disappearance of death itself. In the wake of such a disappearance, one becomes aware of the vulnerability of any ethical activity to the assault of those who would turn human beings into mere things to be used or to be disposed of as need requires.


But this otherness of other humans, this exteriority beyond what can be remembered palpably, remains to be thought with greater radicality. In pursuing such a thinking, Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the “alterity” of the other as transcending one's own being with a finality that resists all mediation. Such a transcendence leads to an exterior that is absolutely other and outside any Hegelian notion of the play of transcendence within immanence.

A return to the faces of Badenheim 1939 will help one to better understand what this absolute transcendence of the other might signify. It was discussed above that for the narrating voice the faces of the doomed Jews had become the faces of ghosts, faces already emptied of their futures by the violence of the Nazi attack upon them. But this vision of the face is itself an ironical gesture that confronts the reader with the horror of annihilation insofar as it is not resisted, insofar as it succeeds. This horror finds its narrative expression in the degradation of the face, a degradation that in turn is only meaningful insofar as the reader keeps in mind yet another vision of the face, one in which the face is respected and its annihilation resisted.

This implied, respectful vision of the face, the vision brutally repressed in the inhuman world of Badenheim but everywhere at work in its narrator's irony, demands further reflection. In this vein it would be helpful to turn to Levinas who also speaks of the face of one's fellow human but a face confronted in one's respect for it rather than degradation of it. Such a face witnesses an infinite difference from one's own being, a difference that cannot be overcome, even in the bliss of a mystical or erotic union. No matter how much one studies the Levinasian face of the other, how minutely one charts its expressions and the desires and emotions that such expressions unfold, the face remains essentially mysterious, signifying an otherness beyond any similarity.

To be sure, the other is exposed to all my powers, succumbs to all my ruses, all my crimes. Or he resists me with all his force and all the unpredictable resources of his own freedom. I measure myself against him. But he can also—and here is where he presents me his face—oppose himself to me beyond all measure, with the total uncoveredness and nakedness of his defenseless eyes, the straightforwardness, the absolute frankness of his gaze.

(“Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity” 55)10

Before this gaze of the other, the self has no recourse. One can choose to kill the other, to deny the other's alterity and in some way appropriate the other for one's own “good.” But the alterity of the other remains untouched. One has not suffered the other's suffering nor died the other's death. For Levinas, to confront the face responsibly is to be given a sign of the other's vulnerability to one's own powers, a particular vulnerability that is not one's own but that one is already commanded by. In this recognition, the self is called to renounce the priority of the good, i.e. priority of the expectation of one's fulfillment. Edith Wyschogrod argues, “The relation with the other does not make us happy; it puts the self into question, empties the self of itself” (86).11

In the spirit of Wyschogrod's observation, the faces of the fictive Jewish residents of Badenheim do not make its reader happy but question him or her in a most disturbing manner. In Badenheim, one reads of the collapse of ethical respect for the annihilated of Auschwitz fictively and in the past tense; unable to rescue the faces of those who actually were annihilated, one summons up the simulacra of such faces in order to remember the outrage, the horror of an annihilation that can never be mourned since the palpable memory of the annihilated disappeared in the very wake of their annihilation. This remembrance of the collapse of memory troubles the reader and challenges him or her to resist that act of indifferent annihilation that so profoundly attacked the integrity of the face, the vulnerability of its gaze. Thus, even though these faces have been lost, their loss remains an outrage that calls upon the reader to respond to them, to the annihilated. In this way, the reader resists annihilation by remembering the vulnerability of the face to the rape of genocide. Yet, the reader's response can only emphasize his or her impotence in regard to changing the situation of the annihilated. Their palpable memory cannot be restored to them; their survivors have also disappeared.

The collapse of palpable memory after the Holocaust radicalizes what was already an element of mourning. In more normal times, mourning is already a relationship marked by a difference in which the “irreversible” past uncovered by the dead resists the survivor's attempt to ingest and digest its otherness (Levinas, “La Trace de l'autre” 199).12 This resistance of the past surfaces within the process of memory as a nagging question, in which the sufficiency of memory to articulate other humans comes into fundamental doubt. In death human-beings become heavier, more substantial than memory, since the finality of a human-being, his or her fatality, signifies a loss that memory cannot comprehend. The loss initiated within death exceeds all possibility and forces those who mourn to confront the impossible, to suffer a loss infinitely beyond restitution.

For this reason, the act of mourning is inevitably intertwined with the call to ethical duty, in which the loss of the other interrogates the loyalty of those who survive. Such loyalty is held not in regard to a memory alone but to this other and the particular gifts he or she has left behind in his or her memory. The memory of the other is shared with those who survive as an ethical obligation to be responsible to the other's address, insofar as it persists in those lives that follow from it. For the annihilated of the Holocaust, for the ghostly faces of fictive Badenheim, such an address has been narrowed to the most impoverished and yet most insistent of gestures. Their disappearance demands that we remember they cannot be remembered.


Dörte von Westernhagen, in Die Kinder der Täter: das Dritte Reich and die Generation danach,13 also encounters the ethical dimension of mourning as she wrestles with the terrible knowledge that her long-dead father, an anti-Semite and SS officer, was a willing participant in the murderous policies of Hitler's Germany.14 Unlike the elliptical mourning of Badenheim 1939, von Westernhagen's mourning is directed to one who did not suffer the Holocaust but assisted in producing it. He is not annihilated and leaves many survivors behind him. Thus, although he died during her infancy, von Westernhagen is surrounded by his memories in the stories of her mother, her relatives, family neighbors, his former comrades. Yet, her attempt to remember such a man is also disturbed by the collapse of palpable memory in the aftermath of annihilation, although in a manner to be distinguished from the attempt of Badenheim to remember the victims of annihilation.

The daughter speaks of her “pain over the death of the hero” and her “deep rage over the monster and his inability to question the necessity of the suffering of others [fremden], as well as his own.” Von Westernhagen imagines two sides to her father's face, one “good” and the other “evil,” between which there is “nothing.” This split in her father's personality, this nothing, so disturbs her that she finds herself possessed by her father's memory with a persistence that denies her mourning of him the power “to loosen tormenting ties to him” (89).

The daughter speaks of the “nothing” between the two faces of her father, because she is horrified at the thought of placing the murderer of others in the same person as the progenitor of her own life. This “nothing” names the resistance of the daughter to the polluting of the face of fatherly love with the visage of one who is implicated in genocide and atrocity. Precisely where the faces come together shame arises. Confronted with the possibility that evil might swallow the good, that the father turned murderer murders the father's memory, the daughter is haunted by an irreducible disturbance in her memory of him that can no longer be healed. Everywhere in her discussion of the memory of her father, one hears the question “why did he act to infect the world with evil, even as he claimed to do good?” Such a question inflicts a wound upon her from which she would recover.

As in Badenheim 1939, the question arises: How does one heal the wound induced by such a collapse of memory? A persistent German response has been

what the Germans call Schlusstrich, that is, “drawing a line at the bottom of an account” to consign the Third Reich to history and make way for the new democratic, reunified, prosperous “Fourth Reich.”15

Indeed, von Westernhagen comments on the persistent tendency of family members to criticize her failure to draw such a line. But how can one, how dare one, forget one of two persons for whom one's very existence serves as a memorial? One cannot choose not to have a father, this other whose paternity stretches beyond his death and reaches into one's own life as the memory of that other who gave one one's own life. To forget one's father would be to forget one's self. Through her father's letters and her mother's reminiscences, von Westernhagen knows that her parents, both father and mother, cared for one another and desired that she be born. “Without their love, there would not have been me” (196). Her existence is the gift given by father and mother, two beings whose own existences are the outcome of a similar gift. As the daughter of her particular father, she bears the responsibility to keep alive his memory, a memory that can now only speak for itself through others. Yet he, through his political loyalties and service as an SS officer, involved his daughter's being born with a way of life that led to the brutal annihilation of Jewish memory. To remember such a father is to remember one who implicated himself, as well as his wife and children, in the effort to destroy the memory of the other.

In confronting her father's memory, the memory of a “heroic” and yet “monstrous” human-being, von Westernhagen seeks to make herself conscious of those destructive tendencies within her own psyche passed down to her from her father, many of which in turn had been passed down to him from his father. In this fashion, von Westernhagen resists the process of introjection by no longer letting what was habitual, embodied, unconsciously repeated from generation to generation, to remain so. Such a resistance is ethical; it limits the extent to which one allows one's forebears to constitute one's own being! In mourning, the dead other is not only preserved through one's commemoration of his or her life but just as importantly is brought into question through ethical reflections that the discovery of the memory of others in oneself instigates. The ethical questioning implicit in mourning can even lead to the disowning of the memories of one's forebears, to the decision to root out ways of life inherited from one's parents, because such modes of acting are narcissistic and evil. Nevertheless, the role such remembrance plays, even if it must be negative, in the formation of one's own character means that one can never completely succeed in removing oneself from those ways of acting that one's parents have left behind. For exactly this reason comes the obligation to make secret inheritances conscious so that they might be resisted.

After reflecting on her wish that the process of mourning might finally be brought to a close, that she might be able to come to some peace concerning her father's presence within her, von Westernhagen finds that

until now there has been no end [to the process of mourning]. In the meantime I have concluded that the process of ‘laying claim to our history as an actualized negation of world and self, as one's negative possession' will not end with my generation. Hence only a provisional account can be shared.


The argument of this essay has been that all attempts to mourn remain unfinished but that the attempt to mourn Auschwitz remains emphatically unfinished. Von Westernhagen's experience of “memory's perpetual unrest” becomes an example of Des Pres's assertion in “The Dreaming Back” that “remembering the past becomes, through disturbance and revulsion and also fear, attention to the present and care for the future” (17–18).16 Von Westernhagen herself speaks of the Holocaust as a “cultural inheritance” precisely because its unrest prevents one from becoming an “emotional illiterate” such as Eichmann who was entirely incapable of “perceiving the monstrous effects of his actions” (199). Only with such an attention to the fragility of memory, can future generations come to be born in a world committed to respecting the life of others.

Where are these dead? They call to us obliquely, in a memory wounded by annihilation through a testimony that preserves the disturbance of an irrecoverable loss, one which harrows the essentially playful gesture of a literature that would confidently incorporate the dead in the words and works of the living. The failure of words to recall not only the dead but also their memory leaves the survivor in shame, in the question of whether simply to be is just. But this shame and the doubt it provokes become the only possible way in which to confront the horror of Auschwitz, i.e. the horror of a human willingness to annihilate memory itself. Humans can no longer be satisfied with the innocence of a literature whose commemorative gesture would simply situate itself in yet untouched possibilities. The very act of remembrance becomes an act of initiation into monstrosity that will not be left behind. Only where the thought of monstrosity touches humans can the future after Auschwitz be addressed. Memory cannot save us otherwise.


  1. Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939, trans. Dalya Bilu (New York: Washington Square P, 1980).

  2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson (New York: Harper, 1962).

  3. See Being and Time, 287.

  4. See Sigmund Freud, “Trauer und Melancholie,” Psychologie des Unbewussten, ed. Alexander Mitscherlich et al. (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1975) and “Die Zerlegung der Psychischen Persönlichkeit,” Gesammelte Werke, Band 15 (London: Imago, 1949).

  5. For a more detailed discussion of this view of Freud see Edward Casey's, Remembering (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987), ch. 10 on “Commemoration.” A critique of this view of Freud can also be found in my dissertation, Impossible Mourning: Transcendent Loss and the Memory of Disaster, State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1989 (soon to be published by SUNY P).

  6. For a discussion of this tendency in Freud, see the “Working Notes” of Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alpohonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1968) 269–70. Merleau-Ponty's comment that bodies “incorporate one another: projection-introjection” (263) show both his awareness of Freudian identification and his wish to use it within his own ontology of chair in which the “reversibility” of flesh, its susceptibility to a split existence, is acknowledged.

  7. Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Macmillan, 1961).

  8. This term has been borrowed from Joseph Arsenault and Tony Brinkley of the University of Maine who have developed the Peircian notion of the indexical in two papers, “At the Limits of Formalization” (presented at the Conference of the International Association for Philosophy and Literature at Emory University, 1989) and “Dialectic at a Standstill” (presented at the Conference of the International Association for Philosophy and Literature at the University of California at Irvine, 1990), as a means of witnessing annihilation that resists the irretrievable loss of the voices (and memories) of the annihilated.

  9. Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” The Standard Edition, Vol. 14.

  10. Emmanuel Levinas, “Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity,” Collected Philosophical Papers: Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987).

  11. Edith Wyschogrod, Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974).

  12. See Emmanuel Levinas, “La Trace de l'autre,” En découvrant l'existence avec Husserl et Heidegger (Paris: Librairie Philosophique, 1982).

  13. Dörte von Westernhagen, Die Kinder der Täter: Das Dritte Reich und die Generation danach (München: Kösel Verlag, 1987).

  14. Von Westernhagen found no direct evidence that her father had ever served in any of the death camps. Nevertheless, he served as a captain with the SS on the Eastern front and was likely to have participated in any number of atrocities associated with the invasion of Russia.

  15. Eli N. Evans, “Dodging the Burden of History,” New York Times Book Review (29 April 1990) 7. Evans reports in her review of Judith Miller's book—One, By One, By One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990)—that throughout Europe the horror of the Shoah has often been masked by various strategies of denial, particularly in regard to the collaboration of local citizens with the Nazis. Von Westernhagen's struggle to confront her father's memory has implications that go far beyond her own discomfort and confusion. This same burden of memory haunts the political and cultural institutions of the entire continent of Europe. For this reason, the Shoah requires a generation (in Evans's words) with the “willingness to stare into the caldron of this history without flinching.”

  16. Terrence Des Pres, “The Dreaming Back,” Centerpoint: The Holocaust, Vol. 4, no. 1 (Fall 1980).

Naomi B. Sokoloff (essay date 1992)

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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 grown-up person now,
I have known fear.
Bloody words and a dead day then,
That's something different than bogie men!
But anyway, I still believe I only sleep today,
That I'll wake up, a child again, and start to laugh and

—Hanuš Hachenburg, “Terezín,” I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezín Concentration Camp, 1942–1944

In his essays Aharon Appelfeld has commented directly on some of the dilemmas that artists face as they attempt to speak, in retrospect, of unspeakable horror. He formulates his ideas in the same vocabulary and concepts that Bialik provided half a century before and which figured so importantly in that author's own narrative of childhood, Aftergrowth. Acknowledging his debt to Bialik as a predecessor in the chronicles of catastrophe and absurd suffering, Appelfeld notes that revealment and concealment, gilui vekhisui, are the essence of all expression, but for those who experienced the Shoah, this phenomenon takes on heightened importance.1 Contradictory impulses toward articulation and silence constitute the very soul of the survivor, who wavers ever about the thin line between saying and not saying. During the war, the author remarks, one powerful motive for remaining alive was the hope of bearing witness. The desire to tell about the ordeal later was an impetus that often gave people the strength to go on. Afterward, ironically, many were silent. Some wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from the horror; for others, words seemed totally inadequate for the purposes of testimony. Furthermore, to recount a story it is crucial to have an audience with shared understandings. The events of the Nazi era seemed unbelievable even for those who had lived them personally. Literature, in Appelfeld's conception, presents particular difficulties in this regard, for it is not content with public language or generalizations. While much discourse about the Shoah tends toward the pathos of high-toned abstractions, literature's very substance and raison d'être is personal expression and engagement with detail. For these reasons literary art is that much more painful for the survivor to confront or create.

In the aftermath of the war there was eventually a return to speech and art, and in this connection Appelfeld quite explicitly identifies children as a major source for expressive response. His explanation is that adults were incapable of renewed vision. Their entire understanding of the world had been shattered by the conflagration, and they sought to forget. Children, on the other hand, absorbed the suffering into their bodies. Part of their being, “like arms and legs,” it was patterned into their every movement. As a result, for the very young the unforgettable nightmare served as a field of the unconscious, binding past and present. Together with their blindness and innocence, it provided them the resources for a poetics of suffering.

According to this view, the first manifestations of the child's impact on art took place in refugee camps on the beaches of Italy after the war. Troops of children led about by impresarios sang cabaret songs, old Jewish melodies, and monastery organ tunes learned in hiding, or they offered imitations of birds and animals perfected during wanderings in the forests. Appelfeld sees in these plaintive performances an affirmation of life and a kind of grotesque but genuine religious impulse. Later, in Appelfeld's own work, childhood becomes a source of creativity because the author's memories afford him an ability to restore particularity and revive secrets of the self. While the mass destruction of the war irremediably damaged individuality, the literary option can help uncover and mine the richness of the past. Suspicious of abstract, metaphysical theory, Appelfeld avers that introspective art, while not replacing religion, can rescue both his own soul and that of his people from oblivion, in a process of rediscovery marked by wonder.

Appelfeld, then, in effect articulates a principle that has been demonstrated in other narratives of childhood. Here, too, earliness otherwise irrecoverable can achieve voice only in a fictional realm. It is the silent register of writing that provides the opportunity to bring the child's inner world to expression. And, as was true elsewhere, a discourse of childhood fulfills the function of combining especially sensitive perceptions or powers of observation with naiveté. The result is new interpretations of reality or a fresh look at the world. In Appelfeld's case, however, while the dynamics are similar to those in, for example, Bialik's Aftergrowth, the circumstances are immeasurably grimmer. The child's vision is particularly valuable, not only because it allows for a revivifying vitality, but because it simultaneously borders on silence. Shaped by ignorance, the child's view reveals a blindness that shields the character from trying to understand too much. Consequently this fiction may cast the world of devastation in a light that makes recollection of the past more bearable for author and reader.

As Alan Mintz has documented in Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, the notion of maintaining childhood sensibility within adult writing significantly informs Appelfeld's artistic vision and the workings of his fiction as a whole. It emerges with particular force in the story “Hagerush.” That tale, which features a young orphan as protagonist and narrator, shows the child's mind to be uncluttered by acquired knowledge, unpracticed in interpretation and so able to observe or record in “non-interpretive amazement.”2 This is a figure, consequently, who stands for the possibility of fictional discourse that registers rather than construes. Such hallmarks of Appelfeld's fiction as his attempts to neutralize judgment and his refusal to demonize or sentimentalize stem from just this stance and express the author's desire to be a faithful witness. To be sure, in his work there are always evident the voice of an adult and the prevailing control of a mature mind. The artist has carefully reworked material from a former time. Yet the author's conceit is that “the writerly second stage of creativity carries over something of the photographic innocence of the child's outlook.”3

This is a poetics that finds its most sustained realization in The Age of Wonders (1978), a narrative divided into two parts so distinct that they may function more as two novellas in one volume than as a single text.4 The first section, the title piece, and the second, “Many Years Later When Everything Was Over,” deal respectively with life in Austria before the war and after. Part 1, as it cultivates the perspective of a child protagonist, conveys the unbelievability of the impending disaster. Because the little boy is unprepared to foresee the cruel events that follow, his limited understanding makes an apt vehicle for conveying the disbelief of his family and friends as well. Living in a world that has not yet known the full extent of Nazi brutality, they cannot grasp the magnitude of the coming destruction. The Final Solution is doubly unanticipated by the characters of this fiction, members of a highly assimilated Jewish family, because they consider themselves wholly integrated into European society. Indeed, the bulk of the narrative is devoted to detailing a spectrum of reactions within the Jewish community as the varied characters act out their inability to truly fathom the seriousness of the deteriorating situation. The father, a celebrated writer who denies his Jewishness, directs his violent anger first against his own people (especially the Ostjuden) and then against himself. Eventually he abandons the family in pursuit of a phantom solution; he supposes that by joining a literary salon, under the patronage of a Gentile benefactress, he will escape the common fate of the Jews. The mother reacts by throwing herself into a surfeit of futile charitable works. An aunt of the child, succumbing to mental illness, also converts to Catholicism. Jewish intellectuals blame Jewish merchants, and Jewish merchants blame Jewish intellectuals, for the contempt with which non-Jews treat their people. Finally, these patterns of denial or attempted escape are put into sharp relief by the exception to the rule: the half-Jew Stark, increasingly cognizant of his Jewishness, chooses to undergo circumcision and unequivocally declares his solidarity with the Jews.

This initial segment of the narrative ends with the onset of atrocity, as the family awaits deportation. The period of most intense horror is both effaced and evoked by a hiatus in the narration. The absence of text suggests that some degrees of suffering can be expressed only as a gap in the writing. Subsequently, the story resumes as the protagonist comes from his postwar home in Jerusalem to visit the town of his childhood. Pursuing the theme of homecoming, familiar from many works of Hebrew fiction on the topic of the Shoah—for instance, Amihai's Lo me'akhshav velo mik'an (1963) (Not of This Time, Not of This Place) or Dan Ben Amotz's Lizkor velishkoah (1968) (To Remember, to Forget), this second portion of the narrative yields a project of somewhat different aims and methods than the treatment of the childhood perspective. By dramatizing the adult's return “many years later,” his reassessment of the past, and his responses to contemporary Austria, this section contrasts with the recapturing of the child's inner life and the imaginative reconstitution of the prewar scene featured in part 1.5 Part 2 differs from, but helps put into relief, the significance and function of that more daring narrative strategy and its accomplishments in the opening segment of the text.

In part 1 the implementation of Appelfeld's poetics of noninterpretive amazement depends on an allegedly autobiographical stance. A grown-up narrator reminisces about his earlier life, roughly between ages ten and twelve, recounting events in the two years preceding the family's removal to a concentration camp. The unusual retrospective power of this view is its insistence on consonant narration. In The Age of Wonders the narrating figure is emphatically not a dissonant narrator who, as a sovereignly cognizant speaking self, can look back and explain the confusions of his youth. Instead, the narrating figure is one who identifies with his earlier self and to a significant degree renounces cognitive privilege. Here, for instance, there is virtually no mention of specific historical events. Exposition of collective circumstances remains at a minimum and so reveals no broad picture or panoramic view of the crisis facing European Jewry. Only one date, 1938, appears in the text, but this happens almost inadvertently, late in the narrative, and does not serve as introductory orientation for the reader. Thus, when crowds of people converge on the family's estate, having been turned out of their own homes, the narrator remarks simply, “These people were panicked Jewish businessmen seeking momentary refuge in their flight” (117). No specific account is offered about what catastrophe they flee. There is a marked absence of detail about both the abuse these refugees have suffered and what will become of them later. Consequently, it is by and large the child's perceptions that prevail, and not the views of an older and wiser, more informed authorial figure. Outcomes are not revealed, and emphasis is placed on the limited understanding of the protagonist.

The adult view does intervene in a modest way. It is restricted primarily to constant reminders that this text constitutes a memory, that something has happened since. As the narration in this way cuts down on suspense, indicating that doom is always lurking, it serves as a counterpoint to the ignorance of the times and simultaneously makes that ignorance so much more glaring. Adult narration is also felt in the development of broad patterns of motifs, most importantly through the mention of trains. This motif establishes a narrow set of variables by which to trace the deterioration of the family. First the mother and son return from a resort in a well-appointed carriage. Later, taking Aunt Theresa on a train to a sanatorium, the family members are subjected to increasing suspicion and revilement by non-Jewish passengers. To arrive at Theresa's funeral they ride in a freight car, for no other transportation is available. Finally, in the last sentence, there is ominous mention of cattle cars hurtling south, and the reader can surmise the culmination of the progressive pattern of breakdown already charted. While this structuring of the narrative creates a framework that helps make the individual, fragmented events more intelligible, there is still a notable lack of retrospective, informed commentary and narratorial self-exegesis. The major hindsight offered—namely, the fundamental fact that destruction awaits the family—provides the story some objective coherence, but of singular interest is the much more obtrusive withdrawal from discursive explanation.

This general stance coincides nicely with and enhances various well-recognized features of Appelfeld's stylistics. The writer is known for his indirectness in referring to the Holocaust and for his deflection of attention away from atrocity. Often, accomplishing this effect entails putting emphasis on cyclical time rather than specific occasion. In The Age of Wonders much the same pattern obtains and can be understood as the child's propensity to notice passing seasons rather than to pinpoint historical dates or political developments. Similarly, the lack of causal links between events may be ascribed to the protagonist's immature grasp of the situation. Appelfeld's typical characterization, that of joining multiple figures together as a collective entity, makes sense if it is viewed as a child's vague awareness of comings and goings and as a youngster's circumscribed ability to engage in prolonged or sophisticated analysis of character traits. In short, the presence of the child figure endows the deemphasizing of plot, the rescinding of in-depth characterization, and the vague reference to time and place with a new-found verisimilitude.

These same qualities of narrative indirection, apparent throughout Appelfeld's oeuvre, have been viewed as an expression of repression and as elements that constitute both the strength and weakness of this author's fiction. The writer's minimalizing focus, in contrast to the enormity of events evoked, creates an eerie, unsettling tension and so reminds the reader of the gap between what can be said and what cannot. Appelfeld's is an understatement that tries to avoid numbing the audience or repelling it through an account of overwhelmingly horrifying detail. At times, though, the concentration on small things eclipses the central phenomenon, the Shoah, such that the vital tension loses its impact.6 Focus on a child mitigates this problem. The young character provides a perfect foil, for understatement is built into the dramatic speech situation as a matter of course. Due to the child's limited understanding, it is easy to naturalize the pervasive compression of information in the text. Indeed, this mimetically favorable narrative framework may account for some of the positive reception accorded The Age of Wonders. In 1979, shortly after its publication, Dan Miron saw this novella as a kind of summa of Appelfeld's works that reengages his established techniques and reworks familiar thematic material with renewed force and concentrated appeal. As do previous texts, this one features attention to a limited period of time, a unified situation leading to slow dissolution, and an emphasis on failure of communication. Here, however, Miron finds better-realized individuals and argues that this is in some ways the most dramatic of Appelfeld's writings.7 The child, as astute but naive observer, allows for both more particularity and more deflection of attention away from horror and historical detail.

The child, then, is not a simplistic emblem of incomprehension but a locus for tensions between a capability to observe and restricted observational powers. This figure struggles to understand and also fails to understand. As such, he embodies an ambiguity fundamental to Appelfeld's aim of creating an art that both reveals and conceals. Add to this the double-voicedness, the dual perspective inherent in texts where adults depict children's experience, and it becomes clear how engagement with a child character in The Age of Wonders may foment a central thematic concern with knowledge. Such a move allows the text to bring to the fore a preoccupation with epistemological and expressive possibilities in writing about the Holocaust. For example, this fiction often conflates adult and child levels, blurring boundaries between afterthrough and anticipation. From this there emerges a series of subtle modulations between authorial voice and experiencing character, uncovering a continuing and pervasive oscillation between purportedly interpretive and noninterpretive domains. In addition, the child figure himself flickers back and forth between feeling at a loss and entertaining prescient intimations of what the future holds. To be sure, his moments of certainty—“Suddenly I sensed with a kind of childish clarity” (85), “Now I knew” (51), “One thing I knew” (46)—are less frequent than and subordinate to a general stance of incomprehension. Both, however, are finally part of a larger gestalt that privileges and problematizes questions of knowing and not knowing. The result is undecidability that at times gives the impression of uniformity, but that finally represents less an abdication of interpretation than a stance of constant vacillation. The poetics of noninterpretation consists in effect of multiple layers of hesitation.

That the child's primary attitude is one of amazement is firmly established in the text through frequent assertions that things have become strange. The word muzar (odd) recurs like a refrain and often stands independently as a complete thought. Devoid of explication, this one word serves as a sentence unto itself. (In English the syntactic structure is modified; “strange” appears as a parenthetical aside, introducing another sentence.)

Strange, Father was not angry with the friends who had abandoned him, the many societies that had stopped inviting him to their meetings. He was angry with the Jewish petite bourgeoisie.


Strange, not one of [the refugees] knew how to explain what had happened, how they had arrived in our town, at our house and where they intended to go next.


Strange, no one interrupted our conversation.


“Strange,” said Amalia, “I thought there were Jews here.”


At other times the words meshune and muzar (odd) punctuate the prose as adjectives or predicates. Mother devotes herself to charity with a “strange, self-denying piety”; Father, surrounded by members of the Jewish burial society, “looked strange” (67); the narrator remarks, “my sleep that night was strange” (38). Numerous other examples attest to this emphasis.8 Similarly related words appear, too, in overt reference to the perplexity the child or other members of the family experience. At various times they are amazed, bewildered, or shocked, and the roots h.l.m., d.h.m., and t.m.h. are scattered throughout the text.9

While sometimes the pervasive perceptions of oddness are explicitly ascribed to the child, at other times comments of a purportedly objective, expositional nature bolster the impression that the bizarre is not solely a figment of the child's imagination. Rather, it is endemic to the entire circumstance. Testifying to a mood of grotesque festivity, the narrator describes the atmosphere of the town as “gay, drugged despair” (103). When the end approaches, the narrative reinforces this picture of disagreeable jocularity: “As in every place exuding the stench of disaster, here too people occupied themselves with barter, the exchange of rumors and bitter jokes” (117). Another example occurs when a young girl, unmarried, pregnant, and without means, seeks asylum with the family. Her tragedy likewise fosters “gay despair” and “strange celebration” (74). Apparently, the father is overjoyed to have contact with someone from his native village. Currying acceptance by a Gentile, even a helpless unfortunate, makes him feel less powerless and cut off from his Austrian identity. Consequently, her misfortune becomes an occasion for him to host a round of raucous, financially ruinous parties. This episode, then, like the previous ones, contributes to a dynamic familiar from Appelfeld's [novella] Badenheim 1939. Life, even at the brink of disaster, goes on, but in a distorted and falsely festive way. In light of these matters the title, Tor hapela’ot, takes on special resonance. The appellation “age of wonders” may refer to the general strangeness of the era even as it draws, too, on an understanding pervasive in Western literary tradition: that of the child as a creature who perceives the world in magical terms and possesses a special capacity for wonder. In this text the two notions converge in an inverse, sinister way. At issue is not joyous wonder nor even comic misinterpretations of the world and ironic revisions of traditional wisdom. Here, instead, the child experiences amazement as the world astounds in acutely cruel and troubling ways. In the process the protagonist becomes an indicator of Zeitgeist and an expressive vehicle for collective historical experience.

The treatment of the child's ability to know and understand moves beyond this fundamental point of departure most decisively through thematic attention to language. Above all there is an awareness that words are instrumental as a way of clarifying experience, but one that most often fails to provide order and meaning. These matters work themselves out in three major patterns. First, the narrative obtrusively emphasizes that many verbal exchanges are beyond the young boy. Second, it becomes clear that a certain amount of information is available to the protagonist. There exists a shared public framework of discussion, but it is one on which he can hang only partial understanding. Finally, the text alludes to a subverbal realm of experience or a point at which words become entirely inadequate yet still affect the character's perceptions.

In the first pattern the narrator frequently spells out that the boy doesn't comprehend.

Words I did not understand flew through the air like flaming torches.


Mother kept trying to pacify Theresa with all kinds of words whose meaning I could not understand.


When Mother said “I don't understand,” it meant that something had happened. But whatever it was was beyond my comprehension.


The double avowal of incomprehension in the last example brings to the fore that the child's perplexity is often matched or paralleled by that of the grown-ups. This kind of sentence alerts the reader to the overall strategy of the text; the child puts into relief a widespread phenomenon of bewilderment in the face of crisis. When Cousin Charlotte, formerly a celebrated actress, loses her job, the uncle responds, “I can't understand it. I can't understand it.” An acquaintance of the family echoes, “This is incomprehensible” (30–31). With similar effect the phrase “for some reason” (mishum mah) surfaces frequently in the narrative and turns the child's wonderment into an index of adult confusion: “Mother asked for some reason if Theresa needed a coat” (55). As constructed here, the words “for some reason” may constitute the boy's admission that he fails to understand. Alternatively, they may also indicate that grown-up actions are disjointed and unclearly motivated. The adults themselves do not always have a good reason for their behavior. Subsequently, as the narrative progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the adults understand as little as, perhaps less than, the boy and are incapable of dealing with their plight. Explicitly exploiting his retrospective advantage, the narrator puts this phenomenon most acutely into relief by drawing attention to the culminating instance of incomprehension. In the final scenes, as the Jews are compelled by Nazi authorities to register en masse in the synagogue, they ask in astonished tones what they are doing there. Some have to be dragged in and refuse to believe they are part of the community of the condemned. Still unwilling to face up to the situation, their reaction is to attack the rabbi and blame him for their predicament.

Throughout the novel, as overt statements of incomprehension testify that the little boy does not fully understand events about him, these same comments also bear a certain ambivalence. At issue is not total blindness to and disregard of surrounding conditions but an instance of a character who knows that he doesn't know. The result is to imply that knowledge is problematic in The Age of Wonders. Further traces of this ambivalence mark the effort to provide information by reproducing lengthy quotations and conversations beyond the boy's comprehension. Much informative talk is reported as the child overhears it, even as he does not appreciate the force of the arguments whirling about him. This narrative strategy entails a shift to direct address that obviates any need to mediate speech acts with the boy's interpretation. It should be noted, though, that the character must be present, as a device to register and record the overheard words. Furthermore, his attention to these words belies his sensitivity, his partial awareness that something significant is occurring. Such scenes furnish the purest instances of a child character as witness, and by performing this function the protagonist keeps the audience apprised of collective events while still demonstrating his own cognitive limitations.

Early on, for example, as the family plans a gathering to celebrate their son's birthday, the atmosphere is decidedly unjoyous. The narrative reports only external signs of gloom because the boy has no clue as to the source of the unhappiness: “The colors of light faded. … I sensed that something was coming to a head in the silence … whispered remarks were exchanged that I failed to understand” (26). Belatedly, the reader becomes privy to adult exchange: “Haven't you heard that they've fired Charlotte from the National Theater?” (30). It turns out that anti-Jewish measures under the Nazi regime are beginning to affect the life of the affluent family and have cast a pall over the party. The reader can grasp the context just in bits and snatches as childish reportage would allow, and much as a child would, by overhearing.

The approach conveys, in several senses, a double message. First, character and reader experience the conversations differently. The comments signify differently in the two separate frames of presupposition: that of the immature individual who, before the worst has happened, can only surmise approaching evil, and that of the adult equipped with historical hindsight. Second, Appelfeld underscores that the child both knows and doesn't know. The youngster's apprehension of events depends on what is articulated for him by his elders, but their statements and explanations are insufficient.

The partial occlusion of events through incomplete apprehension of them puts into prominence that words are not always accessible or meaningful. A more intense expression of this same ambivalence is evident in the conversations reported indirectly, rather than directly. The child is highly aware of words and silences, if not always of their content. This technique grants words a kind of concreteness and animates them as a palpable influential factor in his surroundings. All the same they are unforthcoming, unable to disclose meaning. This is a contradictory portrayal of language as something both crucial and unavailable, inadequate but ever felt as a presence. Examples are numerous.

Inside silence seeped through the rooms like a liquid about to jell.


A few shallow words still hung in the air together with the last notes of the band.

Although no one spoke, it seemed to me that everything we did was governed by the jangling rhythm of Charlotte's words.


The next day my parents returned from the provincial capital bringing with them a breath of alien tumult, words and phrases they had picked up in the law courts.


In a variety of other circumstances language assumes a similar quality of fundamental yet evasive importance. Although many times the inaccessibility of particular statements could be justified by factors not associated directly with a childlike perspective, these examples are noteworthy because in them words continue to function more as an ominous presence than as a medium to reference or understanding. For example, when the doctors treat Aunt Augusta on her deathbed the protagonist remarks, “The whispered words reaching our ears were faint and unintelligible, as if they came from another world” (66). Certainly, physicians are often reluctant to convey bad news to a patient's family, but here the secrecy dovetails with and underscores the general impression of language as something uncommunicative and remote. Similarly, the reader is informed that in the hospital where Stark's circumcision takes place, men “sat drinking coffee out of little cups, baiting each other in a babble of unintelligible words that sounded like curses” (98). On one level the words seem distant simply because the men speak Yiddish, a foreign language as far as the protagonist's family is concerned. On another level the scene contributes to the overall sense that the province of the partially overheard is emblematic of a general elusiveness of understanding and an ever-widening gap between words and explanation. In this way there is reenacted, on the level of the individual incident, the dilemmas of The Age of Wonders as a whole and, indeed, of Appelfeld's entire oeuvre. Here, as elsewhere, the central issue is one of coming to terms with saying and not saying, language as at once crucial and ineffective when speaking about the unspeakable. Thanks to this kind of inchoate dialogue and to abortive attempts to internalize the words of others, apprehension of meaning throughout the text recovers both senses of the word apprehension. Cognition is synonymous or coterminous with incipient fear. The arrival at knowledge proceeds with trepidation.

On other occasions the child protagonist relaxes his attempt to penetrate the world with words, and it becomes clear that there is much reality above or beyond verbal effort. This happens, for example, when Mother tells bedtime tales, and the narrator, remembering how grateful he felt at those times, explains, “Mother would take my hand in hers and this was as enjoyable as the story itself. Even then the evenings were clearer than the mornings. Perhaps because words spoken at night, before sleep comes, partake of the nature of sleep and fall like seeds into the receptive earth” (71). This scene suggests that the way in which words are said—the tone, context, and gesture that accompany them—are as important, or more important, than content.

The realm of nonverbal experience that bears its own legitimacy and dominates the character's inner life is conveyed largely through simile and metaphor. These are infused into the thoughts of the character and become so abundant as to constitute a veritable method of rendering consciousness. Dorrit Cohn's conception of “psychoanalogy” offers a useful description of this technique.10 The term refers to situations in which a narrator distrusts a character's idiom but wants to capture that figure's sensitivity or perceptions. Such distancing of narratorial voice from protagonist's parlance is a model that accommodates itself easily to The Age of Wonders, for the prose in general has been far removed from childish diction. Virtually no indicators of the boy's verbal activity of mind (neither quoted monologue nor self-narrated monologue) are featured by the work. The entire text, while maintaining at least partially the perspective of the child, is rendered in the adult narrator's voice. The analogies and similes, moreover, are particularly unchildlike in their formulation. They recall a child's propensity for creative metaphor and the ability to see things in an unconventional way, but the comparisons are articulated here in a sophisticated and studied manner.

Uses of this pattern are legion and fulfill a variety of purposes. Often they serve to grant actions immediacy and to suggest concrete, vivid presence as those occurrences would gain graphic impact, filtered through a child's imagination. A feeling of doom, for instance, goes through the protagonist “like a thick liquid” (9), in Hebrew “kenozel samikh” (9, emphasis added). Theresa enclosed in a room studying is “like a prisoner” (34), “ke’asir” (30). The outline of Theresa's face seeps into the child “like a sweet soft touch” (34), “ke’ehad harehafim hametukim” (30). Of particular significance are the comparisons that associate Jewish characters with animals. In their own town the family lives “like animals on display, mocked and abused” (103), “hayinu bah kebetokh kluv, mutsagim lera’avah, mevuzim, umesuragim ’eyvah” (90). Father paces the rooms “like a caged animal” (94), “kebesoger” (82). The Jewish passengers who get off the train for an inspection by the authorities looked “like little insects wrinkling the straw with their feet” (11), “harakim ze‘irim hamekamtim ’et hakash bedarkam” (10), and as Father berates the rabbi responsible for Stark's conversion, skinny men come rushing out at him “like a swarm of angry wasps” (100), “kenahil” (87). This kind of portrayal of the Jews, familiar from others of Appelfeld's works and brought out pointedly in the English translation even more than in the Hebrew original, clearly echoes the Nazi ideology of Jewish racial inferiority. The narrator and/or the child character (it is difficult to distinguish exactly where the idea originates) incorporate this negativity into their own views, like the father who explicitly assays that the Jews runs about “like rats” (102), “mitrotsetsim ke‘akhbarim” (89), infesting all of Austria with their poisonous presence. The difficulty of differentiating between narratorial and figural view encapsulates the essence of Appelfeld's poetics. His art depends on overlap between maturity and youth, a child's perceptions retained and exploited in adult creation. Many things expressed here could not be said without adult vocabulary, but they are predicated on a child's mode of thinking and show to what extent self-hatred has affected not just the father but the son as well.

Another kind of analogy further develops the function of these techniques. Presenting conditions contrary to fact, one brand of trope points up the behavior of self-deception, which dominates the Jewish community. The Jews stubbornly persist in believing that things will turn out all right, and the word kemo appears several times to show that this is a mistaken assumption. Consider, for instance, the scene in which Theresa dies. The nuns at the convent take over all responsibility for funeral arrangements, leaving the family feeling useless. The narrator reports: “‘We must go,’ said father, as if we had another pressing engagement somewhere else” (89), “kemo tsipa lanu ‘inyan aher bemaqom ’aher” (77). Later the father insists on going to visit a friend of his youth, a powerful nobleman whose support he craves. Servants turn the family away ignominiously when the master refuses to see them, and Father's response is similar to the one in the convent: “‘We're getting out of here on the first train,’ he said, as if we had any other choice” (113), “kemo ‘amdah lifanav ‘od brera” (98). In each of these instances this figure fools himself into believing he can still exercise his own will and authority.

A host of similar but somewhat distinct cases also hint at discrepancy between the characters' behavior and their situation. Here, however, the feeling of dissociation cannot be ascribed only to the action at the level of narrated events. It stems as well from the interpretive role of the narratorial voice. For example:

Theresa was now brisk, polite and hospitable like a woman returning to her own home and familiar furnishings. […]


Father was stunned. He said, “I don't understand,” and turned his head away, looking into the gloom as if he hoped to meet the eyes of the guilty there. […]


Mother approached the coffin, her head slightly bent, as if she was looking into a baby's cradle. […]


“We're here. What now?” called the coachman, as if he were dealing not with people but with ghosts. […]


As before, in these passages, too, there is clear evidence that the characters deny the reality of their plight. In the first example Theresa has objected to being returned to the convent sanatorium but then embraces that return wholeheartedly. She sees the Catholic environment as home, when in effect she is mentally ill and in flight from herself. After Theresa dies, the mother stands over her coffin as if it were a cradle, confusing death with birth. Father looks for someone to blame for his friend's adoption of Judaism, when in actuality no one is guilty of coercing Stark. The half-Jew, of his own volition, has actively sought out Jewish identity, and his name (“strong” in German) implies that he is a figure of strength. The last example expresses the coach driver's attitude toward the Jews. The Gentile simply sees through them as if they weren't there, denying their existence. These comparisons, then, indicate that the characters are never entirely consonant with themselves in their own actions or in the eyes of the non-Jews. The narrator's constant search for analogy suggests in addition that the characters are not fully themselves within his estimation either. They are always paradigmatic of something else, never described simply in terms of one context. This circumstance creates the impression of a pressure toward interpretation. The narrator is ever trying to pin things down, never definitively able to identify or refer to phenomena directly, and so always tentatively explaining them in terms of another context. He is unwilling to assert with authority, and the overload of imagery suggests an assaying of meaning at once urgent but hesitant. Implications emerge in several directions. The narrative indicates the unreality of the times themselves, as an era suffused with duplicities. Furthermore, the use of simile and analogy indicates that the narrator at once interprets and renounces responsibility for imposing meaning onto events.

The use of the present tense reinforces this reading as it contributes to the complexity of the psychoanalogies.11 In the examples given, the words kefi she and ke introduce a gnomic present suitable for expressing generalizations or cultivating an essayistic quality. This is a move that leads the text away from a specific temporal account and the progression of narrative sequence. Creating an antinarrative component or an element of timelessness, the procedure calls attention to the perceiving mind, which casts actions from one context into another. Consequently, the passages convey a sense that events are constantly mediated by consciousness. External actions and phenomena demand interpretation. They are too strange or estranged to be taken for granted as self-explanatory, yet the interpreting mind grasps constantly after an elusive objective correlative. The use of the present tense has a further related effect as well, which is to collapse the child and adult levels of the narration. In these passages it is impossible to know exactly who perceives. The synchronization of narrated time and the moment of narration conflates the narrative voice with the experiencing self. The temporal indicators suggest that past has become present and that the narrator relives the time about which he tells. (This effect is reinforced by the occasional but extended use of the evocative present in The Age of Wonders. Whole paragraphs of the narrative at times feature this “peculiar grammatical make believe”12 that shifts the prose into the present tense as if the events were taking place at the very moment of writing about them. The grown-up remembers the past vividly. It has not left the child survivor, who is now an adult. The artist still embodies his suffering “like an arm or a leg” and relives those experiences in all their immediacy.)13

As a result, then, yet another displacement has been put into operation, and the unreality of the epoch has infused itself into the narration as well as into the narrated events. The characters react to the strangeness of their circumstance with willed dissociation and are never totally present in their actualities. The narrator, too, is divided, never entirely at home in the present because always captive, in his thoughts, to the past. Further contributing to the sense of displacement or dissociation from an immediate dramatic situation is the narrator's unusual use of kemo and ke. In colloquial contemporary parlance kemo introduces similes, and ke‘ilu introduces conditions contrary to fact. Appelfeld, by contrast, most often employs ke only for similes and kemo for conditions contrary to fact. While such formulations are acceptable in mishnaic Hebrew, they sound a note of incongruity in modern Hebrew prose. The author, invoking a language not of today, presents in his narrative a world of introspection, a cautious probing of an inner realm that exists only in memory and imagination, not in the present of idiomatic, spoken exchange. Overt artifice of language here connotes a tentative formulation of a realm neither here nor there, past nor present, and so creates an evidently fictional register in which to convey the extraordinary reality of this age of wonders.

These formal features contribute to a confusion of remembering self and experiencing self that proves the child to be more a device of authorial voice than a portrait with pretensions to psychological verisimilitude. Attempted here is not the mimetic capturing of child discourse or cognitive development, nor a reasoned assessment of childhood through memory. Appelfeld's protagonist is singularly without individuality. He acts more as a conduit for narratorial perceptions and testimony than anything else, yet this is an artifice that claims to convey kinds of truth otherwise inexpressible. In its artifice, though its purposes are different and the mood more somber, The Age of Wonders more closely resembles Sholem Aleichem's Mottel than the other texts covered in this study. In Mottel an artificially perpetual presence testified to an attitude of optimism, a willingness to embrace the future by greeting each new moment with laughter through tears. Here a lingering of the past in the present and a present enslaved to the past also create a temporal never never, but preoccupation with early trauma yields only the grotesquerie of exultant despair and precludes true joy. Altogether, Appelfeld's effect is one of merging and fusing narrative levels. The impact is quite different from that of, say, Uri Orlev, whose novel The Lead Soldiers operates on much the same fundamental premises as The Age of Wonders.14 It, too, exploits a child character's incomprehension in order to allow an adult writer to speak of incomprehensible disaster. However, Orlev's effectiveness depends on maximizing the gap between young character and older narrator. A closer look at that narrative is in order so as to put into relief the singularity of Appelfeld's writing.

In The Lead Soldiers the protagonist's matter-of-fact acceptance of gruesome suffering is designed to shock. War is what the little boy has known for most of his life, and so he takes it for granted. Later, the terrors he has lived and witnessed will affect his entire way of thinking, but in the midst of events he continues to play childish games. His toy soldiers are more significant to him than the grown-ups' war. The author keeps narratorial comment and child's perspective clearly separate, and the narrator, chameleon-like, steps in and out of narrated events to referee and transmit the child's thoughts to the reader. For example, in a scene from an infirmary, a girl whose feet have been amputated crawls over to the little boy's bed to bring him a sheaf of papers. Laying bare the essentials of Orlev's narrative strategy, the narrator cautions his audience, “Don't read your emotions into him. He wasn't at all upset. He was sure that this was how it was supposed to be” (101). Another more dramatically effective technique used to reveal much the same idea is the presentation of dialogue. The narrator remains aloof, permitting the children's own discourse to prevail and to demonstrate of its own accord how different their outlook is from the expected reaction of horror.

By way of illustration, consider an occasion when two boys in the ghetto first play at teasing a toddler and later go off to their school lessons. In the course of these ordinary activities, a brief, intervening exchange takes place. One child asks the other if he would like to see a horse, and the exposition that follows puts their discussion into an interpretive context that the adult reader can understand.

They crossed the trolley tracks and headed for the last row of houses in the neighborhood.

“Over there,” Tadek pointed.

They came to the edge of a pit.

“It's a hole,” Yurik said.

“It must have been some bomb.”

“Is it a horse?” asked Yurik.

“The head looks like a horse's,” said Tadek. “Everyone says it's a horse.” He picked up a stone and threw it at the carcass. Yurik found more stones and threw them too. […]


This is prose that clearly invites reader-response criticism, as it only belatedly makes apparent that the horse the children go to see is a dead one. The impact and surprise, largely dissipated in a second reading, derive from the obscure referentiality indicated in English translation through the repeated use of “it” and in Hebrew, though distributed somewhat differently, through the use of “zeh.” A carcass as a plaything is a horrifying phenomenon, but the reader recognizes the facts of the situation only gradually. The boys, by contrast, find the situation self-evident and so remark on it in words that neatly illustrate Bernstein's distinction between restricted and elaborated codes.15 That is to say, they needn't explicate in detailed vocabulary or syntax because they know to what they are referring. The clearly shared frame of reference obviates the need to articulate their interpretation, and so they can use simple deictics—“zeh,” “k'an,” and “mi”—without further explanation. These are words (demonstratives, adverbs of time or place, and personal pronouns) whose signification depends on the situation in which they are uttered. Here they have clear meaning for the boys, who take their environment for granted. Above all, there is a disinclination to translate visual impressions into words or value judgments, because there is no preexisting framework of interpretation within which those things register as being remarkable. Child and adult views couldn't be farther apart.

Appelfeld, by contrast with Orlev, arrives at a smoother integration of child and adult levels of the text. His approach is particularly noteworthy because it subverts one of the common characteristics of autobiographical novels. In this genre the time of intense reflection is more often the present than the past. Some of the most memorable of fictional minds, as Dorrit Cohn observes, belong to narrating rather than experiencing selves. Tristram Shandy, Moll Flanders, and Beckett's Molloy all illustrate this point. Consonant presentation of a past consciousness is dependent on self-effacement of the narratorial voice, and few authors of autobiographical fiction have been willing to silence this voice completely. Appelfeld's peculiar accomplishment is to achieve a kind of consonance that doesn't call attention away unduly from narrated events to the consciousness of the narrator. The depiction of the child figure's thinking infuses the time of narration with immediacy and access to stupefying events, yet the author never endows that character with its own words or grants it importance as a speaker. Appelfeld's is a technique that detracts from or diminishes the prominence of both experiencing self and narrating figure, but synthesizes the two and thereby enriches both.

Indicative of the resonance the text gains from its idiosyncratic confusing of child and adult realms is the difference between parts 1 and 2. The second segment is narrated in the third person and so forms a neat contrast with the preceding account. Whether the “I” of the first part and “Bruno” of the second are the same protagonist is a question raised by the abrupt structural discontinuity of the text. Not only is there formal divorce between the two books. There is, in addition, overt commentary on how much has changed when the man goes back to the town of his birth. Everything is altered. Bruno meets Louise, the servant for whom he felt such affection in his youth and who had enjoyed close ties with the family. She had even been the lover of a number of relatives and family friends. The belated reunion, however, yields a sad conclusion: “Now he knew for sure: of Louise nothing remained and all that sat before him was an old Austrian woman” (172). Another former acquaintance, Brum, refuses to recognize Bruno, and the main point of the entire episode is put into relief when a homesick Japanese student residing in Austria insistently belabors conversations about reincarnation. The implication emerges that, if Bruno is still himself, it is only as a kind of reincarnation estranged from his former self. In this world, where everything has changed, the protagonist develops a dissonant retrospective glance at his childhood; and the text, likewise, proffers dissonant narration that sets “Many Years Later” distinctly apart from The Age of Wonders. Part 2, for example, provides extended, discursive explanations of Bruno's feelings about Louise in which magic is not so much recaptured as explicated. The intimacy of living the past, childhood experience is available much more through the curious autobiographical stance of part 1 than it is in the concluding section.

Part 2, moreover, functions as a kind of commentary on the significance of part 1. The ending section demonstrates how the effects of time (and deliberate attempts on the part of some to erase the past) invalidate the protagonist's memories. Doing so, “Many Years Later” underscores the uniqueness of part 1. It insists on the value of preserving Jewish memories and on the indispensable importance of art, which alone can recover the feel of the Holocaust era. This observation accords with Harold Fisch's reading of The Age of Wonders. Fisch has assessed the disjunction between the two sections of narration as a move that negates the conventions of the Bildungsroman.16 The initial segment presents an apprentice novel about growing up and sketches an inner drama of awakening consciousness. Subsequently, the expected moment of epiphany or traditional realization of vocation fails to take place, must fail to take place, because the deportations start. The plot therefore does not follow the evolution of youth into maturity, but rather depicts an aftermath, a maturity that demonstrates how very distant the protagonist's early reality has become.

The division of the book into two separate sections is artistically felicitous, as it incorporates into the overall narrative organization that same radical disjunction of circumstance which, in separate ways, also motivates parts 1 and 2. The discontinuity, which expresses itself initially as consonant narration in the cultivation of the childhood perspective, manifests itself later as dissonant narration, and it results, too, in the very split that structures the volume into two disconnected sections. The question of discontinuity and its impact on Appelfeld's art also raises yet another set of issues crucial to The Age of Wonders. Intertexts and interpretive frameworks, as thematic and stylistic components of the text, are complicated by the dislocations that shape this fiction.

Commenting on the displacements in his own life, the author has spoken movingly of his reliance on Kafka as a literary precursor.17 For a considerable period after the trauma of the war years, Appelfeld shied away from literature, throwing himself instead into other activities and into the demands of adjusting to life in Israel. When he did turn to writing, modern Hebrew literature was not much of a help in developing an art about the Holocaust. Hebrew was a language entirely new to Appelfeld and therefore, in his estimation, not suitable for a deeply personal mode of writing. It served instead as a public idiom, a surface or mask behind which to hide.18 Kafka, by contrast, provided a model after which Appelfeld could pattern his own fiction and so break his silence about the Shoah.

Appelfeld's work is reminiscent of Kafka's in its combination of understatement with horrific event and in its focus on the disorientation of individuals who are dwarfed by monstrous powers, monstrously larger than themselves.19 Without doubt there are also very significant differences between the two writers. Among other things, Kafka often features the quick but futile intelligence that attempts to deal unsuccessfully with inexplicable events. His writing, too, offers detailed descriptions of excruciating cruelty or horrifying acts. (The execution carried out in the Penal Colony and Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis into a cockroach are but two examples.) In The Age of Wonders, by contrast, there is much more approximately an abdication of reason, just as there is a shying away from brutality. However, the factors that do bear a resemblance to Kafka allow the author to develop his own brand of childhood discourse. The adult writer can never transcribe the child's voice or experience with absolute authenticity, but Kafka's portrayals of defenselessness provide a parallel to the child's sense of smallness, and the matter-of-fact acceptance of the bizarre as a given offers parallels to the child's noninterpretive wonderment and acquiescence to surrounding events.20

Significantly, Kafka is mentioned at length in The Age of Wonders, and this fact helps insinuate thematic attention to literary models into the plot actions. The father is a writer friendly with eminent lights of Austrian letters. Above all he is an ardent admirer of Kafka. In the course of events he inevitably falls from grace with the authorities, his readers, and the literary establishment because he is a Jew. The point is of interest, for, in acknowledging his own debt to Kafka, Appelfeld emphasizes that Jewishness is the basis of his feelings of affinity with that predecessor and his concern with persecution, alienation, and estrangement. In The Age of Wonders the father does not recognize any such reason for his admiration of Kafka, and the painful irony emerges that this man clings to his identity as an Austrian to the point that he spurns his fellow Jews and, finally, all Jewish writers. Losing his grip on a paradigm that might help him see his own plight in more perceptive terms, he loses his awareness of absurdity. Acceding to the interpretive dictates of the time, he tries to justify Aryan notions of Jewish inferiority. In this way the mention of Kafka in The Age of Wonders does more than contribute to the negative characterization of the father. It also underscores, within the narrated events, the need for models of interpretation. This is a matter that came up before, when the text pointed out how the child's awareness depends in part on what is articulated by his parents. Because he overhears puzzling conversations, this child is a step ahead of Orlev's Tadek and Yurik; they don't even know there is something remarkable occurring on which they might comment. However, Appelfeld's novel does share with The Lead Soldiers an insistence that meaning is not inherent in the protagonist's experience. Both narratives, then, pose two questions: to what extent do events lead to expression, and to what extent do preexisting assumptions determine the child's ability to perceive?

Responses to catastrophe in literary works are profoundly modulated by the paradigms of meaning with which the author approaches the subject, and Appelfeld turns this issue of presupposition to a principal focus of the novel as he thematizes the question of interpretation. In turn, the child's various encounters with language, together with the father's dwelling on Kafka, heighten the reader's awareness of the narrator's own dependence on narrative conventions: in particular, his liberation from silence thanks to Kafka. In sum, the same preoccupations underlie the author's struggle with expression in his own life and define the fundamental problems explored at the level of narrated events (the child's dealings with language as revealment and concealment). These tensions translate themselves at the level of narration into oscillations between narratorial voice and experiencing self.

The Age of Wonders in all these different guises emphasizes the problematic nature of knowledge and language in an art that attempts to speak of the unspeakable and recover an irrecoverable past. The artistic voice that at first reading seems uniform, understated, a stance of noninterpretation, finally reveals a highly complex set of tensions. A closer look at a single passage may demonstrate how these subtleties adumbrate the deceptively simple prose. Perhaps nowhere are so many of the salient concerns of the entire narrative brought together more richly and concisely than in the following passage. This scene is recounted after the departure of Yetti, the unwed mother whose presence served as a pretext for immoderate partying and so brought the family to the brink of destitution.

The nights were long, brightly lit, and empty. A sick bitterness pinched Father's lips. He became more and more entangled in his lawsuits until there seemed no way out. At night the fleeting memories of Yetti took on menacing substantiality. She still seemed to be sitting there in the corner with her shadows.

In vain Mother tried to give our meals their old serenity. Intimations of orphanhood had fallen on everything, even the drapes. Charged, unspoken words floated in the air like hidden accusations. Mother's face too was infected with the same sick bitterness. One evening Father said, “What more do you want? You chased her away, didn't you?” Mother wept and Father did not try to comfort her. I knew: everything I had once known, my childhood, too, was over.


The actions of the characters, symptomatic of their no-exit situation, are similar to those that typify their behavior throughout the novel. Father, unable to cope with his loss of prestige, is entrenched in useless court battles hoping to make the press rescind libelous reviews of his writing. Mother, for her part, deliberately tries to perpetuate illusions of normal routine. Furthermore, language here is conceived as something elusive and problematic. It is only through unspoken words and snatches of conversation that the child recognizes the seriousness of the situation and the substance of the parents' psychological denial. The impression arises that silence communicates more than speech acts. Most powerful is that which is not articulated. Then, words explicitly designated as mute take on concrete presence (“milim ’ilemmot shotetu bahallal”) and highlight the eeriness of the circumstances. In this they resemble the memory of Yetti, a figure whose absence takes on substance and remains present. (Once again the condition contrary to fact dominates: Yetti is sensed by the family “ke’ilu ‘adayin yoshevet bapinah”). The illusions of the parents and the substantive impact of that which is lacking dramatize that this is a time not consonant with itself. This is a world haunted by ghosts, in which appearances deceive. Such a dynamic carries over into the entire narrative of The Age of Wonders, whose adult narrator continues to be haunted by events of that earlier age.

Out of this mixture of deception, feigned normality, and miscommunication comes the child character's incomprehension or noninterpretation. His perceptions yield a deadpan, matter-of-fact recording of developments, along with a contradictory knowledge. The child knows that he doesn't know. The ambivalence of this knowledge, moreover, yields a paradoxical insight that the very patterns of understanding, the interpretive frameworks that once were operative, no longer are. The English translation felicitously brings out this concept more than the Hebrew. While the original reads, “everything that was, even my childhood, would not return” (“kol shehaya lo yashuv ‘od, ’afilu yalduti”), the English doubles the verb to know in the main clause and in a relative clause, thereby juxtaposing the old, familiar knowledge and the new, unsettling kind: “I knew: everything I had once known, my childhood too, was over.” This move is not an unjustifiable liberty taken in translation. The concern with models of interpretation is implicit in the Hebrew, explicitly brought out not in the exact words of this sentence but in the opening of the paragraph. There the mother tries to establish not “serenity” but “hanusah hayashan”—that is, the old formula, the previous tradition. In Judaism the word nusah refers to modes of prayer, and here it is significant that the expression is divested of, though not entirely divorced from, its religious connotations. The implication emerges that if former times for the boy bore a kind of sanctity, a serenity and wonder akin to prayer (especially in the early chapters, which describe peaceful summer holidays), now that quality is extinguished, as is the very meaning of nusah in a spiritual sense.

The narrator's suffering, his loss of childhood, does not remain singular here. It is generalized. Orphanhood is not his alone, but everyone's. The child becomes the emblem of collective sorrow as orphanhood signifies a burden of massive proportions, a communal loss of support and social moorings. The word “yatmut” in itself bears interesting polyvalence. Orphanhood is at once proper to children (since adults whose parents die are not designated as orphans) but also leaves children bereft of the innocence associated with childhood. Leaving them facing the painful reality of death, it often forces them to grow up that much more quickly. The protagonist's entire world here is characterized, then, in terms of childhood simultaneously maintained and threatened. Bereavement, pain, helplessness, and incomprehension predominate. The same ambivalence obtains in the novel as a whole. Appelfeld's artistry throughout is based on a discourse of childhood suffused with the knowledge that there has already been an end to innocence.


  1. Ahron Appelfeld, Masot beguf rishon (Jerusalem: Hasifriah Hatsionit, 1979), especially 19–26 and 41–51. My citations in English draw from a version of these ideas presented by Appelfeld as “Holocaust Writings: Personal Reflections” (Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures, University of Washington, Seattle, Wash., 1983).

  2. Mintz, Hurban, 203–38. This perceptive analysis touches on child characters in Appelfeld's early work but mentions The Age of Wonders only very briefly.

  3. Ibid., 220.

  4. Ahron Appelfeld, Tor hapela’ot (Jerusalem: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1978). An English translation by Dalyah Bilu has appeared as The Age of Wonders (New York: Washington Square Press, 1981). Quotations from the novel are taken from these two editions.

  5. Several studies have examined this pervasive preoccupation in Hebrew literature with a return to the past, after the Holocaust, to reckon with loss and lost childhood. See, for instance, Shaked's “Yaldut ’avudah,” in Gal hadash, 71–86; Alter's After the Tradition, 163–80; and Alexander's Resonance of Dust, especially chapter 3.

  6. See, for example, Gershon Shaked's assessment in Gal hadash, 149–67; Esther Fuchs's “Hahasaha hatematit: tashtit mivnit bekitvei Ahron Apelfeld,” Hebrew Studies 23 (1982): 223–27; and Lily Rattok's Bayit ‘al blimah (Tel Aviv: Heker, 1989). Rattok includes an extensive bibliography of the Appelfeld criticism surveyed in her monograph.

  7. Dan Miron, Pinkas patuah (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim, 1979), 49–59.

  8. Further examples can be found in the English on pages 67, 69, 71, 73, 74, 75, 80, 85, passim, and in the Hebrew on pages 70, 78, 89, 91, 93, 120, passim.

  9. See, for instance, pages 55, 85, 121.

  10. Cohn, Transparent Minds, 43.

  11. Additional examples using ke plus the present tense are found in the Hebrew on pages 41, 45, 48, 57.

  12. The phrase is Cohn's, Transparent Minds, 171.

  13. For extended passages of the evocative present, see pages 66–67, 72, and 73 in the Hebrew. This stylistic feature is not maintained in the English.

  14. Uri Orlev, The Lead Soldiers, was published originally by Sifriat Poalim (Tel Aviv, 1956); quotations here are from the 1983 edition. The English translation, by Hillel Halkin, appeared in 1980 (New York: Taplinger).

  15. Bernstein, “Language and Socialization,” 329–45.

  16. Harold Fisch, A Remembered Future (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

  17. Appelfeld, Masot beguf rishon, 9–18.

  18. This is the subject of Appelfeld's novel Mikhvat ha’or (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1987).

  19. Hillel Barzel, “Zikat Apelfeld le Kafka,” Zehut (May 1981): 112–20.

  20. David Jacobson pursues the question of parallels between Kafka and Appelfeld in relation to Badenheim, in an essay called “Kill Your Common Sense and Then Perhaps You'll Begin to Understand,” AJS Review 13 (1988): 129–52. In that novel some characters do futilely rely on common sense in a failed attempt to explain their deteriorating circumstances to themselves. Others, who relinquish common sense, perceive and comprehend more but lose their sanity.

Zilla Jane Goodman (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4574

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 bequeathed of their belief. This individual who, because of the many, has been obliterated and become one of the many … is the individual whose essence is the core of the literary vision.1

It is this individual of whom he feels compelled to speak, for

… at the moment that simple truth is revealed to you, you are no longer free to deal with the grand and the lofty: you learn to inquire modestly about this individual whose soul you would touch or, to be presumptuous about it, whose essence you would reach.

And he adds:

This individual is a Jew. Willingly or unwillingly he is a Jew.2

One of Applefeld's Jews—Bartfuss—is the subject of this article. A Jew, perhaps an individual or maybe one of the many, he is the protagonist in Appelfeld's The Immortal Bartfuss.3 What is he, this human, this “immortal,” that all survivors claim him?

Bartfuss. The name is immediately striking. Divide it into its two German constituents and the result is bart fuss, “beard foot.” Turn the whole thing around, cognizant of Appelfeld's bilingualism (how could one not be, with this construction embedded in a Hebrew text?) and divide the name once again into two, then recombine the parts, aware of vocal assimilation, and you are left with bar dfuss as in “son”/“owner”/“bearing” or “outside of” (bar,) and “the printed” or “the fixed in shape/formed” (dfuss)—in another reading, the immortal “non-prototype” (outside the fixed and formed convention).

What do these readings yield? As Bartfuss—hairy foot, beard foot—the name echoes the late eighteenth-century German custom of imposing absurd names on Jews. In this context it is a name redolent of anti-Semitic practice. It is not a name given by a mother and father “in their language,” but a name forced by strangers on a mostly helpless population; it is not an act executed in kindness or loving bequest, but in unrequited cruelty. It speaks volumes in presaging other kinds of sadism perpetrated, in much later generations, by the descendants of those same medieval namers on the descendants of the named. And this while the victims still bore the inscription of their earlier persecution.

In this reading the name connotes the historical continuity of progressive anti-Semitic practice. Append the adjective “immortal” here and it reverberates in two directions: Bartfuss, the immortal Jew (cf. Ahasuerus); or, conversely, a representation of the immortal, not novel, not unique, expression of anti-Semitism. Either way, Bartfuss is taken out of the category of the individual and placed in the realm of the communal and the representational.

If the gestalt is inverted to foreground the Hebrew, and the German left as backdrop, the communal still pertains in the rendering of bar as “son of,” “bearing,” dfuss, a “fixed form” or “prototype.” And if dfuss is disentangled from its prototypic/formal denotation, what is left is “that which may be printed,” that which can be represented, eternally (The Immortal). The implication of eternality here suggests repetition, even if not of the exact essence, then at least of intent, so that the story is one that repeatedly recurs and may eternally be printed, written, inscribed. And in another reading—“son of,” that is “fruit of,” “the printed,” which is “the text”—literature, and, finally, the author.

If the Aramaic portion of the construction, bar, is rerendered, something quite different emerges. If bar is taken as “outside of” or “on the outside,” the name changes once again and becomes “outside the realm of print or representation,” or “beyond the prototype”—and thus unable to be contained either in words or within any prehension of the known or represented. Bar-dfuss is eternally elusive, evasive, untappable—beyond even the notions of individual and community, or so individual, so unique, that no known idiom can express it.

In this story Bartfuss is called immortal by his comrades in suffering and smuggling because he has taken fifty bullets in his body (p. 62).4 There is thus a very concrete and particular reason for his immortality, which removes him from the domain of the communal, of dfuss. And where does it reside? It is embedded in his very body, the most visible, observable mark of individuality.

We are told—either by way of the narrative voice, or via Bartfuss's deflected, inner monologue—that he is spoken of with awe and is referred to as “immortal” because “They needed legends, too, heroes, splendid deeds. So they could say, ‘there were people like that too’” (p. 60). But this is immediately followed by the comment: “In fact they didn't know a thing about Bartfuss” (p. 61). Thus, despite his singularity, despite any actual physical imprint that inscribes him with a uniqueness, Bartfuss's immortality in the tale is stamped on him by the actions or consciousness or needs of others—by their need for heroes. This uniqueness is not his own. It is the property of the many, part of communal consciousness, coerced by the covetousness of heroism.

How far is that heroism actually expressed in the text? Is Bartfuss, undoubtedly a legend, a hero too? Do the perception of others and his own actions coincide? And if so, is that person contained in the narrative? Does he bear expression? Is he prototype or person? And how is he each?

The first sentence of the book reiterates and affirms the title, while the ensuing paragraphs contain much of the thematic kernel of the tale. We are told, in a short three-word phrase comprising the opening statement of the narrative, that “Bartfuss is immortal” (p. 3), but the reason for this “immortality” is only explained much later. At this stage the passage continues as follows:

In the Second World War he was in one of the smaller of those notorious camps. Now he is fifty, married to a woman he used to call Rosa, with two daughters, one married. He has a ground floor apartment, not very large, with two trees growing at the entrance.

Every day he rises at the same time, a quarter to five. … He drinks a cup of coffee and lights a cigarette right away. The first cigarette makes him feel very good. For a long while he sits next to the window and absorbs the little tremors of the morning: an old man walks to synagogue, a truck unloads a crate of milk. These little sights charm his eyes. At six he rises, gets to his feet, lights a second cigarette, and to his surprise, discovers some unpleasant scraps of food in the sink. The old fury rises in him immediately. But he doesn't let the fury take control of him. The muscles tense sharply in his neck for some reason, and he nips his anger in the bud. He goes straight to his room.

His room is practically bare. … Once Rosa tried to dress up the walls a little. She even brought in a table and chairs. That was years ago, when they still talked. Bartfuss cleared them right out, with his own hands.

Since then the room has stood bereft of any garment.

(pp. 3–4)

The quite extraordinary opening sentence is flanked by some minimal historical data and then followed by a rather pedestrian description of the fictive present, which leads into a detailed and, by contrast, microscopic depiction of the assuefaction of Bartfuss's daily activities. Thus the extraordinary receives scant mention, while the mundane spreads, at great length, across the passages. The narrative representation at the beginning of the book is emblematic of Bartfuss's existence. Much in the manner of the text, his life consists of painstakingly observed minor rituals designed to lessen the repressed but ever-present historical atrocity indelibly marked, not just on his body, but on his whole being.

As indicated by the title, the book is a story about Bartfuss. He acts as the axis of the narrative, with his feelings—or, rather, his abhorrences, sensations, denials and evasions—serving as its core. But despite his focalizing function, and in consonance with his psyche, little of an inner world is expressed. Instead, the text constitutes an array of reactions to the world: reactive thoughts, presented in a deflected manner by way of the narrative voice, or reactive action, which is usually the response to the perceived demands of others and to the threat their intrusion entails.

Bartfuss is a survivor. He lives in Jaffa in a “not large apartment” with his wife, and has two daughters (Paula and Bridget). His life at the outset of the book comprises a perpetual attempt at fending off (“He nips his anger in the bud”). He fends off the avaricious advances of his wife (“the woman he used to call Rosa”), who is greedy to get her hands on the treasure he hugs to himself and hides in the cellar. This “treasure,” which is a focal point in Bartfuss's life, is really not much of a treasure at all. It consists of a few thousand dollars, some gold and some objects of sentimental value, but Rosa does not know this, and it becomes an instrument of withholding for Bartfuss. Rosa imagines it contains fortunes of unimaginable bounty, and he does not disabuse her of that notion.

Bartfuss also fends off his daughter Paula (whose approaches are also related to the treasure), and he fends off society at large. Like the treasure in the cellar, he hugs himself to himself (“goes straight to his room”) whenever the world seems to come too close to him.

But most of all he fends off words, and his life is lived in a silence he has created. He speaks to almost no one except café owners and waiters/waitresses when he orders food and drink (he eats out all the time and does not take nourishment at home); bus drivers (on his night rides to Netanya); and presumably to those with whom he has business dealings when he does his buying and selling. It is not clear what he buys and sells and precisely how he makes a living. In the time after liberation, in his idyllic days on the beach in Italy, he was a smuggler, and it seems his “work” in Israel is a legal continuation of this.

Bridget, Bartfuss's younger daughter, is retarded. She is not much given to language and is totally under her mother's domination, so that she thinks of Bartfuss as “he” and is quite terrified of him. She is the one with whom he feels most affinity, but Rosa has blocked his way to her. She has cut him off from both her daughters and set them against him. But Bartfuss is hardly blameless in the matter. When some lame attempts to establish a relationship with them in their youth failed, he easily gave up the endeavor.

There are only a few things which Bartfuss actively seeks out: the sea and bus rides—and sometimes, though infrequently now, desultory, wordless liaisons with strange women on the beach. He has removed himself from language and chooses instead to immerse himself, whenever possible, in the womb-like sensations of inchoate sound and rocking movement. But although he seeks solace in the prelinguistic, preform world, he avoids the total unconsciousness of deep sleep. He struggles with it perpetually, so that part of him is always awake and aware, always watching for intrusions from the outside, and especially guarding against Rosa and her curiosity.

Near the beginning of the narrative, in chapter 5, Bartfuss's life begins to change. He is seized one day with chest pains and is hospitalized. This event sparks the beginnings of a new process in him and he slowly begins to relate (if it may be called relating) to the world around him. His new “openness” is reinforced when, sitting at a café, he sees a woman from his past. She is Theresa, whom he met on his way to “that little camp known for its horrors” (p. 48). They had spent the night together discussing The Brothers Karamazov. She is the only person he remembers from among the sea of faces that passed him that whole year. Seeing her evokes in him memory and the wish to remember and discuss the past. She, however, neither wishes to remember nor discuss anything other than the present, and she claims not to know him. Her attitude has a paradoxical effect on him: as against her refusal to remember, Bartfuss enters memory and “Now he relived that horrible journey to Dorfenziehl as he never lived it before, in detail, with a kind of visionary devotion. Above the great collective suffering, a point of light shone” (p. 54). Theresa redeems memory for him, indeed, redeems him: “… momentarily Bartfuss' life dropped anchor, as it were, at that pier—not exactly a splendid pier, but one that aroused many hopes: Theresa” (p. 54).

Bartfuss decides that survivors need to work for the common good, need “generosity” and “mercy.” He forms a relationship with a woman called Sylvia, also a survivor. She dies shortly thereafter, but not before she shows him his lack of generosity. Finally, at the end of the tale, Bartfuss gives away bills of money to a woman—Marian—who, like his daughter Bridget, is semiretarded. Marian is also a survivor. In earlier days she was pretty and gave herself to any man in exchange for gifts that helped her survive. The book ends at this point. Bartfuss goes home and we leave him on the brink of the relief he has denied himself all these years: having entered the world of words and released his anal hold on his treasury by giving it to a surrogate Bridget, he is about to fall into a deep sleep.

This book may be seen as a struggle for expression and a concomitant denial of words and language, a denial of and struggle against history. The denial of history extends from a very personal sphere—Bartfuss's own history—to a wider arena. The broader aspect cannot be evaded, because of Bartfuss's experience of the Holocaust; willy-nilly he is only partly individual—an “accident” of history decrees that. And yet he can only find his way to history by way of the personal. It is Theresa's individuated form that creates for him “the point of light” into which the “orangish spot before his eyes” (p. 48)—a sign of his impending illness—changes. And yet it is only the retrieval of the personal that allows Bartfuss entry into the communal. Note his visits to the “H.M.” or “Holocaust Memorial” (p. 76), and his decision after seeing Theresa that “now he would devote himself to the general welfare … wholly for the public good” (p. 76).

Thus history, communal and individual, reasserts itself in Bartfuss's consciousness by way of an individual presence in the shape of Theresa's body. Her body (i.e., her presence) operates on him in a manner opposite to the way his body acts on the rest of society. His body, marked as it is by a personal exposure to a communal experience, has become a general symbol of hope immortal: “I expect great things of him” (p. 62), says an observer. His body has become the property of the many and stands as a quasi-individuated expression of the Jewish people—fatally wounded many times, but still alive.

When thinking about the Holocaust, we inevitably think in terms of the many and thus in terms of the abstract or symbolic. We lose sight of the very personal experience of the physical degradation and pain of its victims. Stripped to the bare essentials of survival, all that is left is the body, its sensations and its suffering. This experience brings a person to a regressive state: like the infant, the victim's focus is that of an intensity of bodily consciousness.

When the infant is in this state, it is still prelinguistic and is, as yet, without separate identity, existing in a sea of sameness, not knowing the difference between body/self and other bodies/outside world. In this universe, it experiences movement (most often the mother's movement, frequently a rocking sensation) and inchoate sound. When sound becomes more coherent and is sensed as a mark of difference, the process of identity formation begins. It entails a separation from the mother. When the sounds become words, become language, the sense of separation becomes more acute. This phase has been called the “Law of the Father,” because the father, as it were, enters as language to deny the child the all-pervasive harmony of total union with the mother.

Functioning adults cannot regress so far as to reenter the initial prelinguistic condition. But it is possible that, in being forced to live with an excess of bodily consciousness, the adult—with early, albeit unconscious memory of that state—will be thrown back towards it and desire its comforting incoherence. This is the case with Bartfuss. Although his connection with the sea may be explained in terms of his personal history (the stay on the beach in Italy), and similarly the need for the rocking motion of the bus may be associated with the year-long trip to the camp, it is also equally plausible that these are related to his need to return to a primal oneness. Those years of being “starved, crushed into freight cars, [where] one after another feelings were numbed” (p. 48), and all that remained was the proximity of body, charted the course of Bartfuss's subsequent desire. This may be seen in the type of sexual liaisons he chooses, which accord with the prelinguistic form of desire. Note his first dalliance with Rosa:

He said, “Come,” and she got up and followed him. It was the same the next day. … She didn't even ask his name. … They would make love for an hour or two. Afterward he would part from her without even leaving her a single word.

(Pp. 15–16)

He likes her at the beginning because of her silence—“her silence charmed him” (p. 18). Later, in Israel, his casual sexual interludes follow the same wordless pattern. Bartfuss's desires seem to strive towards the prelinguistic wholeness of the infant's world.

But Bartfuss is an adult who cannot achieve this state fully. And thus, alongside this form of regression, he is fixed in a later developmental-anal-stage. This is the mechanism by which he protects himself, as far as possible, from the invasion and intrusion of a world of which he is all-too-conscious. His anal aspect is expressed in his withholding behavior: “Over the years he developed a clipped language of refusal, protective syllables that were accompanied with a shrug of his left shoulder, all of which said, ‘Leave me alone’” (p. 15).

The anal is most evident in the way he nurtures the treasure he hides. It is noteworthy that he hides it in the dark and damp of the cellar, underground, as if in the recesses of his consciousness. The treasure gives his existence meaning:

Except for his hiding place, to which he gave a lot of thought, and except for the treasure, this alien ground would be barren. The treasure consisted of three gold bars, five thousand dollars, two necklaces, a few gold watches, a few pictures of his mother, his father's passport, and a small photograph, apparently from school, of his sister. These possessions were very dear to him. He devoted most of his pleasant thoughts to them, as if to a beloved woman.

(P. 45)

His treasure comprises artifacts from his past. Holding onto them, desiring them, keeping them hidden—all indicate the need to regress, to return to the past and hold it fast.

Bartfuss became fixed in the anal withholding phase in Italy soon after Paula's birth, when she was struck with dysentery and battled with death for a fortnight:

In those feverish days his language began to take shape, a language with no words, a language that was all eavesdropping, alert senses, and impressions. Even then he learned to mute every sensation. But more than that, he stopped thinking.

(P. 21)

And the retentive crystallizes when Rosa announces she is pregnant again (p. 22). Birth and death seem to evoke in him the fear and anger of the Holocaust and cause him to regress to earlier developmental stages. It is the second birth—Bridget's—that firmly establishes Bartfuss's regression.

While the text does not describe the bodily experience of the Holocaust itself, the traces of this experience may be observed in the recurring references to the body in Bartfuss's post-Holocaust world. People are usually described in terms of their bodies. The survivors have, for the most part, changed in their physical aspect. Most of the women in the story (as well as some of the men) have become fat. While this condition may be seen as a natural consequence of aging, and as a change wrought by living in a peaceful world, its repeated mention seems to imbue it with particular meaning.

Rosa becomes fat after the birth of her daughters, just when she ends silence and breaks into insistent nagging and demanding speech. Her broadening out is associated with her entry into motherhood and into language; and it is inscribed upon her by the Holocaust, and more specifically by Bartfuss's ongoing, repressed experience of the Holocaust. It is the result of a development of the acquisitive in her that is, in turn, a result of Bartfuss's anal denial of her and her needs. She too becomes somewhat anal and garners her own treasure, withholding her daughters—who become almost exclusively hers—from Bartfuss.

Inasmuch as Rosa becomes the mother of specific children, she ceases to be the inchoate, murmuring representation of an all-encompassing mother who is but an extension of Bartfuss. She becomes a specific mother and a specific voice. It is at this time that Bartfuss recoils from her and even tries to escape her and the children. From now on he finds her repugnant. He shudders at her description of her daughters as “nature girls” (with the sexual implication in the term), and is repelled by her use of cosmetics. She can no longer be desirable to him, and the nameless female, turned mother, turned “whore” (with her cosmetics), becomes for him the ultimate symbol of all he must gird himself against.

Theresa, too, has become fat, and her fat may also be seen as a protective mechanism. When she and Bartfuss met in the transit camp she was thin. She was the one face that stood out on the “long road” to the camp.

When everything was locked and dark, Theresa's face had broken through. There were many faces there, thin and tortured, but a clean light, tinged with deep blue, covered Theresa's. All night they spoke about The Brothers Karamazov.

(P. 49)

Then, Theresa stood out in her association with language; now she is fat and does not wish to remember or speak to Bartfuss. Fat, another form of garnering, has replaced her language. But despite her present condition and because of her earlier individuated form, she inspires in an already prepared Bartfuss the wish to remember (his chest pains may be seen as a mark of the opening up of his solar plexus, i.e., his feelings). “I wanted to exchange memories” (p. 57), he replies to her inquiry when she asks what he wants.

After seeing her and after remembering, Bartfuss begins to release the hold of the anal and move away from the early, primitive, psychological structures. He begins to think in terms of abstract qualities. He becomes desirous of altruism and aware of his meanness and withholding: “I should have been more generous. People who went through the Holocaust should be generous” (p. 73). And together with this statement comes the admission that language is unavoidable now, is more than a repressed substratum:

During the past year I've felt an undefinable kind of mental weakness. All these years I've kept myself from talking. In Italy I was consistent and sharp. But in the past year I've been flooded by talk. Words. I don't know why I'm telling you this. I never permitted myself to tell it. For my part I don't like it when people force talk on me. I hate talk. But in the past year it's been flooding me.

(P. 73)

It is at this time, too, that he begins to move away from his former refuge, the sea, and makes contact with Sylvia, the woman who provides him refuge and teaches him the meaning of generosity. Sylvia, in contrast to most of the other women in the tale, is “thin, brazen … without a trace of softness” (p. 76). She is very much in the realm of language. She graduated from a Hebrew high school, loves Jewish law and modern poetry: “She made Bartfuss feel she had words to draw him out of the mire into which he had sunk” (p. 97).

Sylvia helps him into the world of forms and human culture, and she does this by way of words (p. 97). She echoes his sentiments, telling him he should be more generous (p. 98). Thus it is that a woman who is not inscribed by Bartfuss's dual reactions to the Holocaust—she is not fat and is thus neither formless mother, nor retentive withholder—operates here much in the manner of the “Law of the Father”: she brings him back towards the adult world of social relationships and of ethics, and she does this by acting as individuated sound.

Bartfuss finally gives expression to that which Sylvia has taught him, albeit in a somewhat distorted manner. Near the end of the book he partially unburdens himself of his garnered riches when he forces his money on the impoverished Marion. Marion, too, has become fat, and she also does not remember anything.

Bartfuss is finally released from his stasis, finally redeemed from the tyranny of his body, finally accorded his secret hope: “Secretly he hoped the days would have action in store for him, sacrifice, some plunge that would purify his body” (p. 22). At the end of the tale, when Bartfuss releases his hold on the body and its psychic memories and allows them to enter language and concept, he undergoes a process of individuation and enters into the world of adulthood. It is just when he abandons his will which was formerly focused entirely on withholding, repressing, and protecting the self and its material possessions in a shell of exclusiveness, and as a result enters into the oblivion of deep sleep, that he truly becomes individual. Bartfuss can now become free of the immortality imposed on him by the communal will. He can enter the forgetfulness first of sleep, and then of death.


  1. Aharon Appelfeld, Mas'ot beGuf Rishon (Essays in the First Person), (Jerusalem: HaSifriya HaTzionit, 1979), p. 90. The translations of this text are mine (Z. G.).

  2. Ibid.

  3. Aharon Appelfeld, The Immortal Bartfuss, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988).

  4. All page numbers refer to the 1988 edition.

Gila Ramras-Rauch (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7038

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 maintained. Thus no special certainties are in store for the reader when a first-person narrator is introduced. On the contrary, the first-person voice often introduces doubt and uncertainty. Statements are often rhetorical, speculative, even poetic, but they do not supply any special information related to that voice. The omnipresent voice of the narrator, in conjunction with the first-person mode, does not introduce information; rather, it may allude to “hidden intentions” whose source is unknown. At times the oblique statements are reminiscent of the “authorities” that pervade Kafka's text; occasionally those hidden intentions have an affinity to Hassidic lore, in which metapersonal powers intervene in mysterious ways. Moreover, there is a subtle connection between such unnamed powers and the manifestations of the human psyche.

The image of the monastery, alluded to in Smoke, features centrally in this second collection. The stories “The Last Refuge,” “Kitty,” and “Enrico's Journey” view the monastery from within. “The Last Refuge” depicts a Jew who has found refuge in a monastery. After being baptized, he is involved in the production of a mysterious potion extracted from a plant that grows around the monastery. The atmosphere in the monastery is unperturbed by the events outside. The war, the arrest of the Jews, their deportation to the camps—none of these affect the monastery. It thrives financially, and that allows for renovations and new purchases. Working on the production of the potion allows the body to cleanse itself of thought and memory through excruciating pain. The protagonist, renamed Ivan after the local saint, sinks slowly; the potion is absorbed by his system, transmitting pain to his very being. The ambiguous end suggests a fatal metamorphosis—death or madness. On the eve of St. Ivan's Day, two women seek refuge in the monastery, but two monks hurl them outside the gates.

The nonincriminating tone of the story adds to the silent horror it evokes. The story's strength lies in its simplicity and opaqueness. One can suggest an allegorical reading as to the symbolic nature of the potion, its effects and purpose. (What comes to mind is Agnon's short story “The Lady and the Peddler,” about the allure of Christianity.) The theme of change is alluded to. Sin and expiation are inverted when perceived against the background of the Holocaust. Mode of escape is a major theme in Appelfeld's fiction.

The intricate pictoriality, the detailed depiction of mood and atmosphere in an almost impressionistic technique, and the diminution of dialogue contribute to shaping a highly stylized fable in “Kitty.” Yet Appelfeld does not employ a stream-of-consciousness technique; that and the deemphasizing of dramatic dialogue add up to a reluctance to create highly individualized characters. Concern with inner motivations and intentions was not part of Appelfeld's methodology during this period. The stream-of-consciousness technique, had he employed it, would have given his characters an inner life based on memory associations and personalized time. Appelfeld's typical character is flawed in precisely this faculty.

“Kitty” tells of an eleven-year-old girl who finds herself in a French convent toward the end of the war, devoid of both language and memory. She emerges from her insulated, autistic state through a series of revelations, discovering her life through her senses. This synesthetic “conversion” lifts her from an elemental, preverbal creature to a person who relates to the world through her body. As she grows she becomes open to touch, sight, and sound. An expansive, surging sense of life fills her. And while opening up, she continues to weave her own unique, enclosed self. With puberty she acquires language and asks questions in the process of a possible loss of innocence. The silence of the convent protects her like a womb. It bursts open with encroaching reality as the Germans approach. She discovers her Jewishness, and with it anti-Semitism and greed. Through it all she maintains her world as fantasy and epiphany. As the war draws to a close she is shot by the Germans.

The story of “Kitty” (as of “Bertha” and the later novel Tzili) is an intricate tale of girlhood and womanhood. Appelfeld is especially attuned to the fate of the young girls, whose stories carry autobiographical elements. Kitty's metamorphosis is from “cocoon” to “butterfly”; her new process of individuation involves the initiation of her own speech through a constant contact with the world that touches her: texture, touch, sound are all viable elements in her own initiation into personhood. She converses with whatever is present in her space and breathes life into inanimate objects. Here is the opening paragraph:

She was expected to read slowly and to memorize the sentences. She felt how the words hit the stone and returned to her, chilled. They called her name, which rustled within her as in the starched linen dresses which made her shudder. The windows shimmered in the sharp yellowness, kindling the floor with little flames. Sometimes she felt the full impact of the air gripping the back of her neck, stifling the syllables in her mouth. But at other times the flow increased, the good words remained within her, like a warm secret which planted itself slowly, spreading its roots.1

In Kitty we encounter a solipsistic young woman whose trauma, undetailed in the story, causes a kind of “conversion disorder.” Bertha symbolically and psychologically stunted her growth; Kitty's trauma returns her to a preverbal state of being and submits memory to the deepest and darkest recesses. Unlike Bertha, Kitty goes through a process of individuation connected with Christian symbolism. The Jewish girl feels that in her rebirth she is the daughter of God, whose tormented body on the cross she observes. Her encounter with the world around her shapes her new image. Like other of Appelfeld's characters, she senses a mysterious flow of movement which points to another reality embedded in the visual signs of the world. The protracted silence of the convent is her salvation. Penetrating noises unsettle her, creating deep anxiety. A forthcoming visit of the abbess and the sound of cleaning, scrubbing, and furniture moving unsettle Kitty, seeming to evoke unexpressed fears of the past and portending danger. The sound of the steps of the authoritative abbess evokes other sounds within her. But Kitty's suppressed past allows her to glow in the acquisition of a new self.

Summer came, and with it the change. Suddenly, like the transition from budding to blossoming, speech burst forth. It surged in her, colorful and wild, crystallizing into French words which fluttered in her like caged birds trying to escape. They emerged only with the greatest effort, tittering syllables which took on a meaning only by virtue of the voice, the fluency, and the intonation. You couldn't call them words. They didn't seem to come from the speech center. It was her whole being which spoke.

(Pp. 226, 228)

The nuns in the convent—except for Maria, her tutor—consider Kitty to be a handicapped child. Assigned to teach the girl, Maria understands her uniqueness. In comparison, Maria's own life seems unfulfilled. For Kitty the transition from innocence to experience comes with the posing of questions, with puberty and war, all portending penetration. The convent is surrounded by German soldiers, their half-naked bodies suggesting the sensuality and sexuality that have penetrated Kitty's existence.

The threat is coupled with the second visit of the abbess and the appearance of Peppi, the vulgar cleaning woman. Peppi is cunning, strong, and direct in manner; Kitty is attracted to her, knowing instinctively that many questions, unanswered by Maria, will be answered by the peasant woman. Peppi, with her loose tongue and down-to-earth manner, does not hide her sexual encounters with the Germans and thereby reveals a new world to Kitty. As the convent is besieged by Germans, Peppi suggests stealing the convent's gold candelabra. Kitty's refusal to go along with her scheme unleashes a barrage of anti-Semitic slurs. Peppi calls her “a dirty Jewess” and threatens to expose her.

Maria's departure and the revelation about her origin mark the beginning of Kitty's undoing. She is confined to the cellar. Yet in her descent is her ascent: through spiritual resignation and calm she weaves a new relationship with the things that surround her: jars of pickled vegetables in the process of fermentation. Two voices are at war within her. One, a sense of divine grace, leads her to think that she is one of God's chosen children and as such must suffer until his light shines upon her. The other voice repeats the question: “Am I a hairy Jewess?” Despite it all, in an act of spiritual resignation, she awaits her fate. As the war draws to an end, the convent is attacked and invaded.

Kitty had grown taller in the cellar and when she was brought out into the light, dressed in her white nightgown, she looked even taller. The gown trailed behind her. She was led along narrow paths behind the fence. How marvelous it all seemed—like floating in space. Now all the people were gone. Angels embraced her arms and when the shot was heard, she stood for a moment, marveling at the miracle revealed.

(P. 246)

The revelation of the wonder suggests the multilayered structure of the story: a spiritual, almost hagiographic element combined with a deep sense of the irreversible reality of the Holocaust.

Critics offer various readings of the story. One critic claims that it is Kitty's ignorance vis-à-vis Christianity that allows her to create an intimate relationship with Jesus and to conceive of herself as God's daughter. That allows her to experience her death not as a horrible murder but rather as a religious event.2

One theme that emerges in this story, as well as in “Bertha” and to a lesser extent Tzili, is the fear of growing up, of womanhood, of penetration. Kitty's emerging womanhood and the beginning of her menstruation are accompanied by both fear and guilt. The revelation of her Jewishness is juxtaposed with the forces that try to penetrate her and the convent. Only in a state of childhood, protected by a father figure or a convent, can the traumatized girl's wounded psyche find refuge. Guilt ties up the physical strata—changes brought about by puberty. If indeed she is a dirty Jewess, she is reponsible for the crucifixion. Sexuality—suppressed and expressed—is depicted by the women in the story—the nuns on one hand and Peppi on the other send differing messages to Kitty. Sexuality and self-awareness burst out simultaneously. Sublimation on one hand and repression on the other engulf the girl, who has to withdraw to her encased self and to the cellar, there to await her inevitable fate.3

Another story of the 1960s, “In Stone” (in the collection Kefor Al Ha‘aretz), portrays a counterpart to Kitty, a boy of unknown origin who also lives in a convent. Various elements are reminiscent of the earlier story: the cellar, the character Maria, and the fact that the boy, like Kitty, has a speech defect and is considered mute. The boy, given permission to leave the convent, is assigned to work with a stonemason, and stone becomes his mode of expression. Silent entities prominent in “Kitty” appear in this story, too. War hovers, but the boy is in no danger. Enrico, in the story “Enrico's Journey,” is, like Kitty, curious about his own origins. He is told that the neighboring village, where he was born, was set on fire and that he was brought to the convent as a baby. Revelations unite all these stories. The young boy of “In Stone” discovers the face of a young Jesus in the stone he carves, and a visiting bishop consecrates this image.

The Jew is almost always on the move in Appelfeld's work. Escape, flight, and pursuit unite his characters. At this early stage Appelfeld writes Jewish tales that combine Biblical, Hassidic and Kabbalistic motifs. That allows him to suspend any historical framework and to endow his stories with a mythic quality by depicting a repetitious pattern of the basic Jewish condition. The title of the story “In The Wilderness” brings to mind the desert wandering of the Children of Israel. Appelfeld introduces a religious authority into the stories in the character of a ritual slaughterer or a rabbi. In most cases, they have lost their power or their authority in a world gone awry. Time is not specified; neither is the place. We know that these parable stories take place in Europe. They seem to exist beyond an identifiable geographical terrain; war is in a distant background. Wandering is a major theme in this group of stories, where surrogate families are formed.

Appelfeld's early stories often present variations on the same motif, or a branching out from given basic units. The collective group is occasionally the protagonist, and the protagonist himself is a type rather than a clearly individuated character. In various stories we encounter the unit of three, most often composed of one adult and two young people. Appelfeld moves his characters from the center of historical events into peripheral locations. He strands them in forsaken places away from the eye of the storm. “The Hunt” opens with the tale of a nameless protagonist who was deserted by his nephews on the bank of a thawing lake. He joins a group of wandering gypsies, inhabitants of the nearby mountain, and becomes a storyteller and healer. He tells the children the stories of the Pentateuch, stories engraved in his memory. He wants to tell them about the last tragedy of the Jewish people, but they want to hear about the Biblical Joseph and his travails.

Their curse is their forgetfulness. Initially their wandering had a higher meaning, but they forgot it; their power to foretell the future is now their curse. As the wolves begin attacking their camp and snatching their children, the gypsies withdraw to the cave. They embrace death valiantly as free people. The story of the gypsies is mysterious; their enigmatic existence, with obvious comparisons to the Jewish plight, is an inverted mirror image: remembrance versus forgetting, past versus future, words versus deeds.

Until the 1990s Appelfeld's stories, characters, and plots are situated geographically away from the war and the concentration camps. We do not encounter a camp directly until his 1991 novel The Railway. Appelfeld's stories are fictional replicas of his personal autobiography. In this early phase of his writing, locations parallel those experienced by him after he was severed from his family as a child. The flight, the forests, the bunker, the monastery are stations in his own life, as are the shores of Italy. The stories against the background of Italy vary in mood, type, and tone. Some carry clearly autobiographical data, while others are highly fictional. Appelfeld succeeds in creating a similar but different world in the stories “By the Shore,” “Cold Heights,” and “The Isles of St. George.” The terrain contributes to the atmosphere of the stories and is molded by them. The scorching sun, the Mediterranean Sea, and the sands are the background for the refugees of the DP camps. Some of the stories are character-oriented (“The Convoy”); in some a group of people serves as a protagonist. There are highly stylized tales as well as parables against the background of Italy. Small mountainous Italian villages, unaffected by time, are invaded by convoys of eternal nomads and refugees.

It is interesting and valuable to examine the relationship of an author to his characters, their actions and behavior. Appelfeld tries to adopt a nonjudgmental tone, but one nevertheless cannot avoid posing questions in regard to his feeling toward acts committed by his characters. From the early stories to the novels in the 1990s he attempts to maintain an aesthetic distance. That he chose to depict characters who commit immoral acts in the eyes of society but does not comment upon them creates an interesting dichotomy. We might claim that his traumatized characters move in a different world, one that does not abide by conventional morality. The question raised is in regard to whether this can serve as a complete and satisfying answer. Clearly he is not trying to teach a moral “lesson.” The unparalleled circumstances of his characters shape his fiction. And yet the choice bespeaks an attitude—toward the self, toward Jews, and toward Europe.

The tone of the story “By the Shore” (also translated as “Near the Shore” or “Along the Shore”) is established in the opening paragraph:

Immediately after the war, a world of opportunities opened up, the trains rushed to the ports … a few succeeded in boarding ships, the rest remained here, on shore near the small huts left by the army … a bustle of activities ensued; there were even those who removed their clothes and offered them up for sale; the more enterprising set up stands.4

The theme of trade and peddlers appears in stories connected with the life prior to the war, taking place on the shores of Italy after the war, and later in Israel. A certain mixed tone is almost always attached to this form of life: mild criticism and understanding. Appelfeld personally joined a group of people who distanced themselves from the hustle and bustle and opted for meditation and silence. At the same time he feels that those frantic activities should not be perceived superficially—it was out of a deep need to taste change, life, and a way of breaking away from suppressed horrors. The activities in this story portray frenzy and madness. Most of the surface activities are somehow moored in self-deceit, in an externalization of inner turmoil. The urge to move, to do, to act, answers deep-seated needs: “Memory was still naked. There was a remarkable readiness to respond to every rhythm, to every transaction, even to plundering of the army camps … which had been deserted” (p. 140).

It seems as if only the tangible and the immediate bring any certainty. Ideas, words, mores—all have failed. Freedom means movement without hindrance. Reb Israel, the son of the Kumchul Rebbe, calls for repentance and a return to a modicum of spirituality. When he tries to approach the British authorities, people don't hesitate to drug him with sleeping pills and put him on a freight train going south. The attempt to break away from authority knows no bounds. The deep sense was “how marvelous it was to be alive, to be in the thick of the transactions” (p. 143). The burgeoning of petty commerce consists of small stands under the scorching sun: dealing came first, the search for relatives was left for later.

Excessive eating and general surfeit bring on an epidemic, in the form of smallpox. The army's enforcement of quarantine has led some to the idea of escape. Two cases of typhoid and the plan to fence the area off have accentuated the desire to escape. Excessive sun and excessive food have taken their toll. The quickest have fled to the ancient Italian village perched on the hill. At this juncture Appelfeld could have opted for a story with a collective protagonist, but he brings forth three characters and focuses on a major instance in their life. The opening sentence is repeated as an introduction to the characters: “Up there a world of great opportunities opened up.” Berl and Fischl infiltrate a slumbering village with their zeal and frenzy for business. The village is awakened to cries of “nylons, nylons.” Both have survived and are set on having a “good time.” Their attempt was to do, not to think. There is a void between the hustle and bustle of the days's empty activities and the equally vacuous sleep.

Another epidemic breaks out, forcing the two down from the mountains against their will. Everyone has returned, even Reb Israel, who was in a state of Yerida, a state of “descent,” which in the Hassidic lore is a condition for Aliya, “ascent.” Not uttering a word, he sits all day long eating sardines. Quite late in the story the reader is introduced to Gitl. She was nine years old when Berl found her in the snow and brought her into the bunker, and since then they have been together. Despite her attempts to please both men by serving them, Gitl feels that she is a hindrance. So do the two men, who decide to leave the girl behind. In the glorious search for new opportunities, there is no room for a child. The decision is to leave Gitl in a convent: “There she'll learn French.”

The surrogate family and partnership bear a variety of forms in Appelfeld's fiction. Usually the nonsexual tie, between a mature man and a young girl, involves desertion as well. The desire for movement and freedom is acute; it is the existential desire to be that goes beyond emotional ties to the past. Saving Gitl's life was a noble human act; committing her to the convent was a cruelly cynical one. Conversion is a very sensitive issue in Jewish moral consciousness. Fischl, as Berl's alter ego, brings the girl to the convent; his voice is muffled when the “transaction” takes place. He signs the form the nuns present to him: “With faith and complete awareness I have brought my daughter to be brought up in holiness, all the days of her life, blessed be the worshipers of God” (pp. 168–169). Gitl is forced to believe that French is good for her. As we see the last of the two they are heading south.

Another problem that emerges frequently in Appelfeld's fiction is the suspension of the ethical: the character's actions here point to just such a suspension. Presented with the actions depicted in this story and others, we may ask whether the reader is called upon to resolve the ethical dilemma. And what can the reader infer about the attitude of the author? Despite Berl's hesitations, the deed is done. Self-denial and self-deceit are a part of the mentality of the two. Their cultural and moral opaqueness makes them light and mobile. Memories are suppressed as a load that can have tied them down, and they are therefore discarded. It is interesting to note that the scene depicting the betrayal and desertion of the girl is conveyed through dialogue. This enhances the dramatic nature of the event and creates a distance between the author and the text. Toward the end of the story the dialogue between Berl and Fischl takes over: it is terse, repetitious; everything said is repeated and echoed, depicting hesitation and coercion. One senses Berl's moral anguish, yet he is being led into self-deceit willingly.

In the midst of “petty transactions and grander schemes,” Mintz points out, “one realizes that opportunity is mobility.”5 Despite the nonemotive depiction of events, there is a surfeit of the grotesque and of parody. Awkwardness emerges from the lame energetic scenes depicted. Opening paragraphs are often independent units which can be attached to a variety of stories, facilitated by nonparticularized plot and character, with the reader acting as an organizer, creating the narrative continuity by combining independent, often disjointed units into a story.

In this regard, the story “Cold Heights” is different. From the beginning we are given time, place, even particularized descriptions. Despite ambiguities, the story begins affirmatively, with a detailed description:

The tower of Larma, commanding the scene from stark heights, soaring like a statue which blends with the rocky landscape. The ocean lies in front, and from behind, jagged gorges surround it, a dank dwelling of eternal gloom. … Relics indicate that the place was originally used as a lookout post for one of the princes. Later, due to its unusual virtues, it became a fortress. … Eventually it became a retreat for monks.6

The inhabitants of the tower are convalescent war refugees. A contrast appears between their emaciated bodies, which “had nothing but a network of nerves to cover them …, their souls flickering within, and the open expanses of the sky.” Under the seemingly quiet, hushed atmosphere, madness and violence are waiting to erupt. Outwardly the patients changed, their wounds were healed, their cheeks were flushed—all to the satisfaction of Dora, their nurse. In other characters the choice of inertia and a state of stagnation is typical. Voluntary change, as we have observed, is highly demanding, often a risky and even damaging process. Language and expression, too, endanger the status quo. Some of the patients are catatonic; some look like skeletons. The bursting spring outside bespeaks rebirth.

“Cold Heights” is one of the few stories by Appelfeld that feature a narrator as a presence. He observes the small movements of the convalescents and knows that neither generalizations nor details could capture their being. A smile, a single syllable, a stammering utterance are the paroles of these maimed people. These sparse signs are shrouded in secrecy and silence. How does one combine all these signs into a body language amounting to a comprehensible text? How can a writer, even one who is a witness or a survivor, penetrate the mystery of the other person? Two characters emerge and come to the center of the story. Despite similar motives and situations, each has a unique nature.

There was one man by the name of Spillman. When chairs were brought outdoors he could be seen sitting beside a girl, who, to judge by her resemblance to him, must have been a niece. … Certain facts concerning their life were known and could even be pieced together. … They were among those who had fled. This incredible escape story is worth describing in greater detail, though I doubt whether I can do it justice. We must make the oversimplified distinction between those who faced the torture through to its end, exhausting it, as it were, and those who fled to the forest disguised as peasants or circus clowns. Carrying death within them they roamed about. They joined a troupe of clowns who did the rounds of villages, drawing crowds and entertaining them with acrobatics, pantomime and rowdy dances.

(Pp. 94–95)

Appelfeld's fascination with the circus is also expressed in Essays in First Person. It is possible, however, to see another connection. Fascination with time and movement is expressed in Kafka's fiction, and one of its symbols is the trapeze artist, whose desire to avoid touching the ground—to exist freely, independent of outer factors—is echoed in the hungry artist's desire not to depend on food.

Tragically, many inhabitants of the tower in “Cold Heights” have become emaciated as a result of their torture at the camps. There is no particularly esoteric message to be attached to their bare bodies. Tightrope walking, performed by Spillman and the girl, can serve as a metaphor for any number of Appelfeld's characters. The two have a mystic aura around them—they sit in the sun like two majestic frozen figures, evangelists of a hidden meaning. There is an ambiguity in the way they are described: “they seemed to be clarifying their thoughts, contemplating the crucial words” (p. 95).

The connection between Spillman and the girl is unclear. Is she his daughter? His niece? His mistress? Did he save her? The presence of a narrator does not help in eliminating ambiguities. The story is, in a way, about the writer's limits on knowing and expressing. And thus the slow awakening in the cold height is marked with cryptic sentences that allude rather than state. Despite silence and sedation, questions seem to be suspended in midair: What for? Where to? We observed that some of the inhabitants are in a catatonic state; others have awakened to life and its possibilities. Again the themes of food and sickness are connected. Liuba, the girl, contracts measles, but she is not alone. The textile merchant, with his dreams of commercial transactions, is ill, and so are the two children in the tower.

The role of the narrator is at best ambiguous. At times he is one of the characters in the plot, at other times a director who steps in and out of the play-text; at still other times he is silent. The emerging question is: whose play is it anyway? His hesitations and doubts are expressed:

What right had he to tell the tale of the group? If Liuba were to open her heart, the warm flow would purify them, give them the redeeming word, restore friendship, revive the days in camps and bunkers. Someone said that Liuba was sealed in silence and suffering, and hadn't said a word yet.

(Pp. 108–109)

It seems as if the redeeming words are sought by the narrator who faces the mystery. Those words, the healing words, did not come, words that could recreate a bonding, a connection between the people. The feeling is that sometimes living in the twilight zone was safer; a dazed state of inaction was preferable to a state of change. The noncommittal self desired no change. And at times, silence was a cover to a seething rage. Spillman, in a moment of rage, madness, and pain, drags Liuba along the veranda and tries to hurl her over the cliff. The process of healing is connected to the emergence of memory. Liuba is the one to recover—the fate of Spillman is unclear. He claims that she, the girl he saved and carried on his shoulders, was defiled by the gentiles while in the circus. Between violence and silence the subterranean life of the inhabitants of the tower draws to an end. Liuba and Spillman are left behind, awaiting the decision of the health authorities.

The departure from the fortress has a comic-tragic bent. As they leave, the refugees are clad in colorful donated American clothes, painting a picture of a slow, uncertain, and grotesque exodus. “Cold Heights” consists of several tales. One is the story of twenty-four refugees in the fortress, which serves as a rehabilitation camp in Italy, probably established by United States forces. The nurse Dora, who is probably a nun, takes care of her wards. She mediates between the patients and the outer world, while the narrator, the silent observer, relates his own story and theirs to the reader. In a manner suggesting Pirandello, there is a search for characters. The story of Liuba and Spillman is the story of the artists and the story of the surrogate family. It is Spillman who dreads separation and desertion. His acts of violence are desperate acts to maintain his hold on Liuba, who in her white dress evokes purity. In the midst of it all there is a game (as Spillman's name suggests), a serious deadly game of love and betrayal, of faith and doubt.

Uncle and niece have become wasted in spirit and vitality, and the other survivors know that they must go about reconstructing their life 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.7

At this stage the Appelfeldian characters oscillate between a desire to suppress memory by silence and the adopting of activities that seemingly proclaim freedom. Both action and inaction are modes of suppressing memories of the past.

The novella “The Isles of St. George” in the collection Kefor Al Ha‘aretz (Frost on the Earth, 1965) also belongs to the cycle that depicts the life of refugees in Italy. It is an outstanding study of a man who has reached a point of no return on a deserted island near the shores of Italy. This third-person narrative sums up various themes and places experienced by the Appelfeldian characters: home, the flight, the forest, Italy, Israel. The protagonist, a man sought by the police, is in a state of total fatigue, with his past memories encroaching upon him. During and after the war he was in a constant state of moving—he never stayed long in one place. In Israel, where his friends settled down, leaving behind them their shady dealings, he was still involved in black marketeering. The few moments of grace in Jerusalem have not changed him. The desolate Isles of St. George are his last resting place; the arid, desolate place is a last resort and a possible station in a hidden desire for purification and atonement. After being constantly on the run to avoid the authorities, he has been arrested by his own psyche, it seems.

The protagonist with multiple aliases, who bought the name Chohovsky, is being transferred to the islands by an old Italian fisherman. The motif is reminiscent of the crossing of the Styx in Greek mythology, when the souls of the doomed are transferred to the underworld. The protagonist has perfected the art of illegal dealing and the art of escape, thrilled by the danger and suspense. He despises his past partners in Israel who settled down to a life of middle-class acceptability and boredom. He thrives on danger, achievement, and freedom. The spirit of adventure was broken, however, and a yearning for his childhood besieges his dreams. He fears the encroachment of the past because he realizes that his strength lies in being on guard. The past is a disarming experience. The quest for the island is a turning point in his life.

The novella reveals various stages in the protagonist's life, and like many of Appelfeld's longer narratives, the opening establishes a framework for the unfolding story.

During the course of his wandering Chohovsky arrived at the Isles of St. George. These little islands south of Italy were once inhabited, and the name they were given, although its origins have long been forgotten, bears witness to a certain sanctity which was attributed to them. The sparse vegetation lives its humble life under the sun. … Chohovsky was weary of his wandering: only long solitude would be able to absorb the poison of the years from his body. … He wanted to part from his fate and from his stupefying weariness.8

Once on the island Chohovsky senses that his life is going to be different. He, the man who had pursued sin and danger with elation, expects a certain expiation through seclusion. The story features two movements: one tells in a progressive manner about the protagonist's life on the island; the other reverts to his early childhood. The reader reconstructs Chohovsky's life and interprets the present in light of the past. Chohovsky, whose life resembles that of a trapeze artist, knows that the time for the dangling sensations has passed. His life of shady dealings and speculative ventures was a form of art. He always aspired to unattainable summits. He glowed in the life of walking on a tight-rope but this came to an end; he senses that the rope has snapped—no longer can he enjoy an existence outside the law and restrictions. A feeling of resignation settles on him as he realizes that his long flight has come to an end. With trepidation he views the inevitable collapse. The island seems to be his solution.

The third-person narrator is a source of information and data. We learn the various stages in Chohovsky's adventures and their pattern: he has moved from place to place, from Vienna to Italy, to Israel and back to Italy, continuing his illegal transactions. When his speculative dealings “rose to dangerous heights,” everything collapsed and he moved on to a new place. He did not desire the accumulation of capital, since this required deliberation and steadiness. What excited him was risk for the sake of risk. As noted earlier, in Appelfeld's stories memories are often suppressed because they constitute a heavy load. Time and again, characters adopt forgetfulness to facilitate movement or a state of no change. Chohovsky is different. He tries in a way to delve into his past through dreams and by so doing to unite the severed halves of his existence: blissful childhood and the life of an outlaw. As long as he was on the run, memories were suppressed, on the island, memories emerge. His hometown, Lischchik, is evoked in his conversation with a fisherman. Regardless of where a Jew finds himself, Chohovsky says, his home calls him back. The change for Chohovsky is not merely a change of place—he has a longing for home—he expects a miracle or a sign. Unprotected by either commercial transactions or constant movement, he is in a state of vulnerability. After twenty years of life on the run, he tries to shed the phony covers he adopted. He realizes, for instance, that his real name is Leibel Gutsman.

The exploration of the island parallels his exploration of his own psyche. Years earlier the island was chosen as an oil site, and the failure of prospectors in their endeavors left the unearthed rocks in a state of chaos. Chohovsky's Bukovina background emerges as he remembers traveling with his father in a convoy to the Sadigora Rebbe. They sang on their way as stones were hurled at them. This was a test, a trial, as was his whole existence. On the barren background of the island he is able to converse with his suppressed dreams and with the figure of his father. His existence gains a religious aura. His desire to kneel, to pray and confess, evokes a hidden sense of guilt. Chohovsky's prior life is reconstructed through dreams and visions. The dreams, reminiscent of Agnon's Book of Deeds, are always connected with childhood, with his father and with his name. Guilt in Appelfeld's fiction is connected with the act of betrayal and desertion. In one dream, characters from his childhood emerge; his borrowed name, Chohovsky, belonged to a man who was drowned in the Danube, and the dream takes place on the banks of the Prut, the river that runs through Bukovina. He feels a combination of deep guilt for his desertion and a desire to gain his old name/self.

The image of the father appears again and again—with his white beard and the flour the gentiles threw on his face. The father is shocked by the son's life; he considers it insubstantial, illusionary, witchcraft. The son tries to convince the father that business and speculation are God's gift to the people of Israel. The father's message is that a man must examine his own deeds and distinguish the real from the illusory.

Walking over the island, Chohovsky/Gutsman meets Vinter, a watchman guarding the deserted equipment and the drilling machinery of the oil prospectors. Vinter, a Jew, does not crave company, and he looks much like the petrified terrain he lives in. It seems that Chohovsky, too, will remain in this disemboweled land. Another discovery is the presence of smugglers who found refuge on the island. He befriends one of them, also a Jew, and they reminisce about their days in the forests and their adventures. Every meeting on the island points to a possible way of existence. His last encounter, the most meaningful one, occurs at the monastery of St. George.

Many times he had sought refuge in monasteries. The monks rejected him. This time it seemed that he had not come to seek refuge, his legs had carried him there on their own accord. He remembered his speculations like a worn out adventurer with nothing left but his memories to delight him. How exhilarating his moments of happiness had been.

(P. 67)

A month after his arrival on the island he reaches the monastery. The pleasant monk who greets Chohovsky/Gutsman resembles Vinter. At this stage of his life Chohovsky tells everyone he meets that he is running from the authorities, and he does not hide the truth from the monk, either. At the beginning the meeting is rather formal. Only when Chohovsky says that he was in Israel does the monk get excited. He has been assigned to go to Israel in six months. He asks Chohovsky to teach him Hebrew so that he can read the Bible in its original language. Chohovsky, who did not speak Hebrew in Israel, begins to teach the monk the portion of the week in its traditional Ashkenazi intonation which he remembers from the Heder of his childhood.

When the monk departs from the island, Chohovsky is left alone on its shores. But before he leaves, the monk tells Chohovsky that a man can begin again from the beginning. Chohovsky responds with questions.

But where is that beginning? Perhaps it would be better to ask where is the end? and perhaps it would be better to forget. To sit and forget, year after year, until forgetfulness eats you up from inside and then to rise again. A new man. A new Chohovsky. For that reason, and that reason only, I came here. Otherwise the cancer will find many places to take hold and grow, innumerable places. Teach me the art of forgetfulness so that I can begin again from the beginning.

(Pp. 71–72)

The open-ended closure of the story indicates that the process of introspection and self-awareness has begun. […]


  1. A. Appelfeld, “Kitty,” in E. Spicehandler, ed., Modern Hebrew Stories (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), p. 220.

  2. Lilly Rattok, Bayit Al Blima (Tel Aviv: Hekker, 1989), pp. 74–75.

  3. For another view, see N. Aschkenasy, Eve's Journey (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), pp. 236–239.

  4. Appelfeld, In the Wilderness, p. 139.

  5. Mintz, Hurban p. 212.

  6. Appelfeld, In the Wilderness, p. 85.

  7. Mintz, Hurban p. 211.

  8. The English translation appeared in Jerusalem Quarterly, Summer 1983; the excerpt is on p. 48.

Further Reading

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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.

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Appelfeld, Aharon (Contemporary Literary Criticism)