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Aharon Appelfeld’s writing career began with poetry published in the 1950’s and progressed through short stories to novellas and longer fiction. He has been a prolific writer in Hebrew of countless poems, hundreds of stories, and more than twenty volumes of fiction and essays. Many of his short stories have been published in English-language periodicals, and one collection is available in English, In the Wilderness (1965). Like his longer fiction, Appelfeld’s short stories revolve principally around the events preceding and following the Holocaust and deal in large part with Jews separated from the mainstream who manage to maintain themselves in a non-Jewish world. Prominently mentioned in significant discussions of his work are the stories “Berta,” “The Journey,” “The Betrayal,” “The Pilgrimage to Kazansk,” “Regina,” “Kitty,” and “1946.”

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Although Aharon Appelfeld has been published since the 1950’s and emerged in the 1960’s as a leading Israeli writer, it was only in the 1980’s that his genius was recognized outside Israel, with the publication of several of his novels in English. Prior to that time, however, he had been recognized with several major Israeli awards, including one for his poetry in 1960 and the Bialik Prize in 1978. He was also the recipient of the Israel Prize for Literature in 1983 and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction in 1989. His autobiography The Story of a Life (2004) was awarded the Prix Médicis in France, and in 2005 Appelfeld received the Nelly Sachs Prize, a literary award presented every two years by the German city of Dortmund.

Most critics writing in English have concentrated on Appelfeld’s reputation as one of the great voices of the Holocaust (Alan Mintz asserts that “Greenberg and Appelfeld are the two great writers of the Holocaust in Hebrew literature”) and on his writing techniques of simplicity and understatement and their relationship to the techniques of Franz Kafka. Appelfeld himself has commented on these evaluations of his work, disagreeing in part with both: “I am not writing what is called ’Holocaust literature.’I’m just telling stories about Jews—to Jews—at a certain period in their history.If my work has echoes of both Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] and Kafka, that’s because I see them both in the tradition of Jewish minimalist literature.” Appelfeld’s writing achievements are perhaps characterized better by Irving Howe: “No one surpasses Aharon Appelfeld in portraying the crisis of European civilization both before and after the Second World War.He is one of the best novelists alive.”

Discussion Topics

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What essential differences exist between the intellectual Jews and the Ostjuden that Aharon Appelfeld depicts?

Discuss specific instances of self-delusion that pervade Appelfeld’s writing and that help to depict the position of Jews in a society that has turned against them.

It has been said that people believe what they want to believe. Do you find instances in Appelfeld’s writing that support this statement? Be specific.

To what extent are Appelfeld’s depictions of Jews objective? Subjective?

Discuss the theme of dislocation as it applies to Appelfeld’s fictional characters.

How would you depict Appelfeld’s attitude toward intellectuality?

How specifically does Appelfeld’s depiction of some of his characters that are used metaphorically relate to the broader context of Jewish society?


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Appelfeld, Aharon. Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. New York: Fromm International, 1994. Series of lectures contains useful biographical information on Appelfeld. In an interview that first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1988, Roth and Appelfeld explore the biographical and literary sources of Appelfeld’s works.

Bauer, Yehuda, et al., eds. Remembering for the Future. 3 vols. Elmsford, N.Y.: Pergamon Press, 1989. Includes many informative essays on Appelfeld, especially “Aharon Appelfeld and the Uses of Language and Silence,” in which Lawrence I. Langer explores irony in Appelfeld’s work, and “To Express the Inexpressible: The Holocaust Literature of Aharon Appelfeld,” in which Nurit Govrin treats Appelfeld’s fiction in the context of his essays.

Budick, Emily Miller. Aharon Appelfeld’s Fiction: Acknowledging the Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Presents philosphical analyses of Appelfeld’s major novels, including Badenheim 1939, Tzili, and The Iron Tracks, addressing how these fictional works support understanding of true historical events.

Fridman, Lea Wernick. “The Silence of Historical Traumatic Experience: Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939.” In Words and Witness: Narrative and Aesthetic Strategies in the Representation of the Holocaust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Analyzes Appelfeld’s novel Badenheim 1939 along with other Holocaust literature to demonstrate how Appelfeld and other writers invent techniques to represent this “unrepresentable” tragedy.

Ramras-Rauch, Gila. Aharon Appelfeld: The Holocaust and Beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Provides biographical information on Appelfeld as well as critical discussion of his works.

Schwartz, Yigal. Aharon Appelfeld: From Individual Lament to Tribal Eternity. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2001. Discusses three major themes in Appelfeld’s work: the recovery of childhood and memory, the creation of place, and the religious stance of the Holocaust writer. Maintains that Appelfeld’s underlying concerns transcend his experiences as a Holocaust survivor to include larger issues of Jewish identity.

Wisse, Ruth R. “Aharon Appelfeld, Survivor.” Commentary 76, no. 2 (August, 1983): 73-76. Contains an early appraisal of Appelfeld’s fiction.

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Critical Essays