Badenheim 1939 was originally published as a story in a collection entitled Shanim Ve’shaot (years and hours), but it was not published as a separate novel until 1980, when it appeared both in Hebrew and in English translation. The Hebrew title, literally “Badenheim, Resort Town,” is less revealing of the novel’s meaning than the English title, which indicates that the story occurs after the Nazis had taken over Austria. Aharon Appelfeld based the book, he said, on his experiences as a young child at resorts to which his parents had taken him and on his personal knowledge of the Holocaust.
Appelfeld survived the Holocaust. At the age of eight, he escaped from the Transnistria labor camp in Ukraine and survived for three years in forests and villages. He said that his blond hair and ability to speak Ukrainian helped him avoid capture. In 1944, he was liberated by the Red Army, after which he worked for them as a messenger boy. After a stay in Italy, he went to Israel in 1946.
The novel has been called a fable, a parable, and a comedy. Appelfeld uses dramatic irony, satire, and allegory, and the novel is alternately dreamlike, surrealistic, and nightmarish. The Holocaust is never mentioned. Appelfeld assumes that the readers have the necessary historical knowledge to recognize that the Holocaust is part of the story. Many critics feel that the omission of explicit references to the Holocaust adds to the book’s power.
Critics often compare Appelfeld to the Jewish Austrian-Czech writer Franz Kafka, whose works have a similar nightmarish quality. In Kafka’s works, the reader feels a vague anxiety that things are not what they seem and that all is not right. The same kind of feeling pervades Badenheim 1939. The vacationers and the workers at Badenheim, especially Dr. Pappenheim, expend tremendous energy denying the reality of their situation. Even when he sees the freight cars, Dr. Pappenheim does not accept the horror that awaits him.
The freight cars are the final symbol of the destruction awaiting the Jews of Badenheim. There are, however, many earlier signs that things are not as good as Dr. Pappenheim asserts, beginning with the fact that all Jews must register with the sanitation department. Putting up fences, unrolling barbed wire, and erecting cement columns could be interpreted as preparation for the festival, but in this context the preparations point to concentration camps. Trude’s feeling that something is wrong with the guests foreshadows the moment when the guests are loaded into freight cars.
Badenheim 1939 depicts the assimilated Jews of Germany and Austria who, like the poet Rilke, whose works the twins recite, believed that they had become part of the culture of the nations in which they lived. Often, however, they still found themselves living, working, and vacationing almost exclusively among Jews. The novel captures the awakening that occurred to many of them when they discovered that no matter how assimilated they may have felt, the preponderance of the non-Jewish citizens of their nations did not consider them part of their culture. The Nazis decided that outright extermination was appropriate. Appelfeld’s Austrian Jews, like Dr. Langmann and Peter, attribute their problems to such Polish Jews as Dr. Pappenheim. Appelfeld has created a terrifying novel about humankind’s inhumanity and about people’s inability to recognize that inhumanity, or its source, even when they are its victims.