Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 178
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...
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- Critical Essays
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2323
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 supersedes all others. Badenheimers are discomforted, and several begin remembering their past while some of them blame the Department’s intrusion on the Ostjuden, the Eastern European Polish Jews, many of whom have not abandoned their Jewish heritage to assimilate into the Austrian culture.
As brief glimpses into the background of some of the guests are revealed and alliances and schisms among people are developing, the Sanitation Department posts pictures and descriptions of Poland and invitations to leave Austria and go to Poland. Twin-brother readers foreshadow the future by performing their specialty, readings of the death poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and the Sanitation Department denies everyone except the milkman and the fruit truck driver entrance to or exit from the town. More deprivations follow as forest walks, picnics, and excursions are terminated as well as swimming in the pool, because the water supply is closed. Meanwhile, the non-Jews are leaving Badenheim.
The lives of other guests and their feelings about being Jewish are revealed as people are forced into closer contact with one another, and the “alien orange shadow” and “leaden sun” symbolize the town atmosphere. Vegetation grows unchecked as people learn that they are prisoners in the town with no postal service and that all Jews, even Jews who renounced Judaism or whose parents had converted to Christianity, will be forced to “transfer” to Poland. With only a few exceptions, people accept the edict, and many try to find the positive in the transfer. Food supplies begin to dwindle as the town fills with strangers—people dragged in from all over Austria because they were born in Badenheim. Even the feeble town rabbi, long ago relegated to an isolated old-age home, is brought into town. Derangement and chaos erupt as people seeking drugs loot the pharmacy and the musicians steal the hotel’s dinnerware in preparation for their forced “transfer” to Poland. Finally, Helena comes home without her non-Jewish husband. (“A goy will always be a goy. And your goy too is a goy. I’m not sorry,” says Trude.)
Even the four dogs, pets of the headwaiter, try to escape by jumping the fence; driven back, all but one is shot. Ultimately, blame is placed on Dr. Pappenheim as “the arch Ostjude and source of all our troubles,” because he invented the festival and “filled the town with morbid artists and decadent vacationers.”
At last, the time for deportation arrives: “How easy the transition was—they hardly felt it.” In fact, the policeman who escorts the Badenheimers to the train station has a very easy task because people, glad to be free of their confinement, are in fine spirits as they discuss the advantages of Poland. As if he were responsible for the “transition” as part of the happy festival arrangements, Dr. Pappenheim is overcome with tears of joy. As they are “all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel” into the four filthy freight cars that come to take them away, the narrative ends with the impresario’s observation: “If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.”
Rather than being rounded, the characters of Badenheim 1939 are archetypes of people and conflicts repeated throughout the Holocaust. Unnamed and defying rational explanation, the Holocaust is the most powerful force in this novel. Revealed as a symbolic orange shadow enveloping Badenheim and gnawing at the geraniums, as a leaden sky blotting out the sun of the once-beautiful resort town, and as a general, undirected fear, its reality is confirmed only by its effects. Like William Blake, who cannot comprehend “The Tyger” although he sees it, the Badenheimers neither comprehend the actions of the Sanitation Department nor foresee the consequences of those actions. The power of evil is clearly felt, however, as it directs an increasingly and overwhelmingly destructive course.
The Sanitation Department, efficiency and thoroughness personified, is the agent of the Holocaust. As the orange shadow symbolizes the Holocaust, the Sanitation Department is both literally and symbolically the organizer and collaborator of the Holocaust—the Nazis and others who, in not defying them, become their agents. The Badenheimers never rise up against the Sanitation Department, a faceless, large, well-equipped omnipotent agency, because they cannot even imagine the Department’s ultimate purpose. Instead of directing their anger about the increasing deprivations and humiliations toward the Sanitation Department, the Badenheimers make the grave error of assuming an unseen rationality and instead look to themselves for the cause of their problems.
Except for Trude, whose initial visionary perceptions of the truth and resultant fears are considered hallucinations and signs of disease, the characters remain blind to their mortal danger. Trude, like the other characters, however, is a loosely drawn type—one who sees the Holocaust coming but who is considered mad even to fear its portents. Still, when their daughter Helena returns home as Trude has predicted all along, “Martin knew that everything that Trude said was true.”
Dr. Pappenheim, the impresario who has arranged for the town’s summer entertainment for thirty years, was considered the most important person in Badenheim because summer was devoted solely to the pursuit of pleasure. With the confinement of Jews to the town and their imminent deportation, however, people blame the impresario and begin to treat him with hostility, which he does not recognize in his futile and continuing efforts to make the summer festival a success. Dr. Pappenheim’s greatest pleasures appear to be making people happy and seeing the regulars return to Badenheim each summer. Ignoring each succeeding Sanitation Department imposition and perpetually rationalizing his way to optimism, Dr. Pappenheim tries to dispel the mounting anxiety about the Sanitation Department’s increasing restrictions. He succeeds so well that a holiday atmosphere prevails as the Jews board the deportation trains to the sound of his optimistic prediction about the train ride.
Among other residents of Badenheim in 1939 is the musician Samitzky, who is the prototypical Ostjude whom the others hold responsible for their rejection by the Austrian world. Unpretentious, simple, and open, he is proud of his Polish roots, loves the Yiddish language, and becomes the lover of Frau Zauberblit, another prototype and an escapee from a nearby tuberculosis sanatorium whose non-Jewish husband has divorced her and whose daughter had brought her papers to sign renouncing all claims of motherhood. Thoroughly depressed and seeing no escape, Samitzsky chooses to spend each day in a drunken stupor.
The Jews’ perceptions of and reactions to specific government actions leading to the Holocaust are the focus of this novel. Badenheim and its inhabitants symbolize the Jews’ tenure in Austria—outsiders enjoying a deceptively gay vacation in a death row that masquerades as a festival. The Sanitation Department, the organization and its agents who want to cleanse the city of its “waste” in the most expeditious manner, prepares for the Jews’ deportation to the “Poland” of death. As the Jews’ freedoms are increasingly abridged until they are prisoners, the naïve victims accept what the Department does with minor grumblings, some despair, and, in some cases, great anger at one another for causing the problems. Excepting only a few people who consider themselves non-Jews but whom the Department nevertheless considers Jews, no one confronts the Department or even tries to leave, despite the ominous warnings. Situational irony, confirmed by an analysis of the historical period, highlights these opposites. Because the Jews were condemned as targets for the Sanitation Department, the deportation was tolerated by many rational “non-Jews.” Yet the Jews’ willingness to cooperate fully and be model citizens in a country they loved but that did not love them enabled the Department to deport them without encountering fierce attempts to ensure self-preservation. Similarly ironic, Trude, the only Badenheimer able to sense the impending catastrophe, is considered insane because of her fears; those who accept the unfolding plot by ignoring what they see or through frenzied drinking and gluttony are considered sane.
Dramatic irony, painful because the events are historical while also highly symbolic, pervades almost every line of the deceptively simple prose. Instead of perceiving the deportation to Poland as the next step toward death, the guests and Jewish townspeople, despite the forced return of all former Badenheimers to the town and many deaths among them, greet the filthy trains of death with joyful anticipation, seeing them as the vehicles of escape from their imprisonment.
Euphemistic symbolism names events and interprets actions with simultaneously figurative and literal images. The orange shadow that “gnaws at the geraniums” ominously predicts illness, death, and crematorium fires. As the vacationers compliment the thoroughness and efficiency of the Sanitation Department, they reflect both a historically documented pride in “their” country and the dramatically ironic efficiency of the technology and psychology used to exterminate them.
Because Badenheim is representative of Europe, each event symbolizes its larger European counterpart. Included are the initial acceptance of deprivations, the internal conflicts among Jews that hindered their leaving earlier, the carefree holiday illusions of security that clouded a clear image of reality, and finally, the misplaced optimism of a possible new “Golden Age,” in which Jews would be fully enfranchised citizens, an idea that lulled them into believing that the evil would disappear with the orange shadow, leaden sky, and the cutting of the “creeping vines” that sealed the doors.
Other images that enhance the action include the forest, symbolizing freedom; the new blue fish placed into the tank, which are deceptively fun-loving during the day but strew the tank with corpses at night; and finally the clichéd reversal—instead of people being treated like dogs, dogs are treated like people and are killed.
Matching the simple naïveté of the unsuspecting but fearful Badenheimers is the deceptively simple writing style. Short, simple sentences predominate, but the reader must attend to every word, lest important ideas be lost. Subtleties shade and enhance nuances of meaning and reveal symbolic imagery requiring thought, and each subsequent reading opens new avenues for consideration.
Badenheim 1939, Aharon Appelfeld’s first work published in English translation, introduced his writing to American readers. Although he had produced, in Hebrew, volumes of poetry, more than three hundred stories, and more than twenty volumes of fiction and essays, and although he emerged as a major Israeli author in the 1960’s, he was largely unknown outside Israel until the publication of Badenheim 1939 in English translation. Almost immediately, the novel was recognized as a new form of Holocaust literature, and each succeeding novel has enhanced the author’s reputation.
The novel also established a set of images and techniques that Appelfeld used in his subsequent novels, the most unusual being his treatment of the Holocaust, whereby he evokes its atrocities without direct allusion to the historical events that led to them, taking his readers “through the chill of enveloping horror without ever wallowing in the horror itself,” as Stephen Lewis has put it.
Also introduced in Badenheim 1939 are images found throughout Appelfeld’s work—travel, trains, forests, abandoned children, lost mothers, ugly fathers, intermarriage, and the negative prewar Jewish image. All are woven into an allegorical but realistic world that intensifies the reader’s vision of the inception of the Holocaust.