Badenheim 1939 Analysis
by Aharon Appelfeld

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Badenheim 1939 Analysis

Badenheim 1939 is known as a seminal work of Holocaust literature. Rather than providing a realistic account of the atrocity, it envelops its historical references in a satirical allegory. In doing so, Appelfeld points to the the loss of sanity that ensues in the fictional Jewish-Austrian village as a proxy for the absurd logic of genocide. The cascade of insanity ironically begins at Badenheim's annual arts festival. Appelfeld's choice of occasion suggests that while crimes against humanity squelch and interrupt the arts, they also originate from a similar process of artistic formation.

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When the "Sanitation Department" (a euphemism for the Nazi regime) arrives and begins to extricate the Jews to eastern Europe, they try to rationalize the regime's actions. Since there is no moral logic behind Hitler's state-sponsored genocide, the Jewish people internalize the unintelligibility of their situation and turn on each other as the only available scapegoats. Appelfeld thus depicts the collapse of European society as predicated on this moral and intellectual confusion and the need to assign culpability to an "other" when the orchestrator of suffering is alienated from everyday life.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Badenheim

Badenheim (BAH-dehn-him). Fictitious Austrian resort town based on real Austrian resorts that Aharon Appelfeld and his family visited during the late 1930’s. The entire novel is set in and around Badenheim. The main attraction at this beautiful vacation resort is its music festival.

The original Hebrew title of the novel, which translates as “Badenheim, resort town,” emphasizes place even more than the book’s English title. By adding a date, the English title clearly sets the story in the context of the Holocaust.

Hotel

Hotel. Huge Badenheim building adjoined by the spacious, beautiful Luxembourg Gardens. The clientele of the hotel are entirely Jewish, and most of its workers are Jews from Austria and Poland.

The novel starts at the beginning of the resort season, early spring. As the novel progresses, the Sanitation Department erects fences, puts out rolls of barbed wire, and erects cement pillars enclosing the hotel and its gardens and thus enclosing the Jews. Although to the reader, the nature of the changes the Sanitation Department makes clearly relate the setting of the story to the Holocaust, the visitors and workers in the hotel blissfully misinterpret what is happening; they see the changes as a sign of the Sanitation Department’s efficiency. They eat, drink, listen to music, and enjoy themselves.

As the seasons progress, the abundance of the spring season gives way to the scarcity of fall. People begin to pack. Dogs and sentries patrol outside the barriers erected around the hotel. The post office closes. There is less and less food and drink for the visitors and workers. People loot the pharmacy, stealing drugs, and begin to take them in private.

Sanitation Department

Sanitation Department. Government department that quickly becomes the center of the town’s activity. All Jews, both visitors and workers, must go there to register. Even Christians who have Jewish parents or grandparents must register there. To both visitors and workers at Badenheim, the Sanitation Department itself begins to look like a travel agency decorated with posters about the value of labor and the wonders of Poland. However, it is the government agency that is overseeing the destruction of the town’s Jews. Aside from a few people who do not consider themselves Jews, but whom the Sanitation Department considers Jews, no one confronts the department or even tries to leave, despite the ominous warnings.

Railway station

Railway station. Badenheim train depot through which virtually all visitors pass. Visitors to Badenheim get there by various means, but most come by train, arrive at the railroad station, and take carriages to the hotel. All of them leave by train. At the end of the novel, policemen and dogs accompany the Jews as they walk through the town and the...

(The entire section is 1,089 words.)