Badenheim 1939 Summary
Badenheim 1939 was written by Aharon Appelfeld and published in 1980. The novel is set in the small spa town of Badenheim in Austria, not far from Vienna. It is late spring, and the villagers are readying accommodations for the annual summer visitors. We soon meet these visitors, who are mostly Jewish, as they arrive in turn. The pharmacist in the town, Martin, is the main character in the novel. As summer festivities begin, local authorities from Vienna show up and begin to flex political muscle; at first, Martin and the others believe that the government has arrived to help them with crowd control for the town's annual music festival. However, they are soon told that all Jews must register with the government because they will soon be transferred to Poland. As the townspeople await their fate, nearly everyone becomes depressed and sullen, and some of the older and sicker people die. All the while, more people keep streaming into Badenheim, until the day when all the Jews are all loaded into "four filthy freight cars" at the train station.
Badenheim 1939 displays a sequence of both realistic and symbolic events beginning in the early spring of 1939 in the Austrian resort town of Badenheim and ending with the deportation of the Jews in late fall of the same year. A third-person narrator, in detached and understated style, reports the steps taken by the Sanitation Department to gain control of the town and abridge the freedoms of its inhabitants while revealing how specific people react to each succeeding deprivation.
The novel opens in 1939, amid swirls of unidentified rumors, as a foreboding, uneasy spring returns to Badenheim with the sound of country church bells ringing, two Sanitation Department inspectors examining a flow of sewage, and Trude delirious with a haunting fear that is also beginning to infect her husband. Shortly after the arrival of Dr. Pappenheim, the director of the summer festival, the perennial vacationers arrive and the town is abuzz with activity as the city people, anxious to relieve themselves of worry and the memories of an unusually strange past winter, stream toward the forest.
With the arrival of the feisty musicians, the vacationers wildly vent their emotions on liquor and pastries, and an inspector from the Sanitation Department appears at the pharmacy, asking peculiar details about the business and taking measurements with a yardstick. As time passes, Trude worries even more about her daughter, Helena, who married a non-Jewish military officer against her parents’ wishes and, in Trude’s visions, is being held captive on her husband’s estate, where she is beaten every evening when he returns from the barracks. Concurrently, the Sanitation Department expands its power to conduct independent investigations as it spreads all over town, taking measurements, putting up fences, planting flags, unloading rolls of barbed wire, and preparing cement pillars. The large south gate to Badenheim is closed, and a small, unused gate is opened for pedestrians. The guests, interpreting these activities as attempts to make the summer festival the best one ever, pursue gluttonous merriment even though Dr. Pappenheim’s “artists” are breaking their promises to appear at the festival. With a memory of the past summer, when the musicians surprised even themselves and annoyed the regular guests by sliding into playing Jewish melodies, a new theme is introduced.
Badenheimers become estranged, suspicious, and mistrustful of one another as the Sanitation Department completes its investigations and in the middle of May posts a “modest” sign requiring all Jewish citizens to register with the Sanitation Department. Who is and is not Jewish becomes a matter of heated debate, with some denying Jewishness because of either personal conviction or conversion and others readily proclaiming their Jewishness. Foremost for all is the belief that they are Austrian first and Jewish second and that their national allegiance...
(The entire section is 2,501 words.)