In The Healer, the Katzes are bourgeois Jews who live in Vienna. When their daughter Helga begins to suffer from psychological problems, they seek help from every doctor available, but the treatment she receives brings no permanent improvement. Hearing of a healer in the Carpathian Mountains, the parents, Felix and Henrietta, decide they must take Helga there in a desperate attempt to restore her health. Their son Karl accompanies them when, in October, 1938, they take Helga to the Carpathians for six months of treatment.
The story’s ironies are not inherent but are a product of what readers know about the history of the period. This is the last year Eastern Europe will be free from a fascist tyranny that will lead to the annihilation of most of the people involved in Appelfeld’s story.
As the story develops, one realizes that the healer, the innkeeper, his Yiddish-speaking wife, and the Katzes themselves are marked for destruction. They perform their daily tasks, engage in their petty conflicts, fill their lives with small details that in the long run have little meaning. Hovering darkly above the entire narrative is the specter of what is soon to happen to Eastern Europe and to every Jew who lives there.
In this story, Appelfeld reiterates the notion of self-hatred that he is convinced helped lead to the downfall of European Jews during the Holocaust. This theme emerges in a discussion Henrietta has with the healer about Helga’s name. Henrietta had wanted to name her daughter Tsirl, after the girl’s grandmother, who was born in this rural region. She decided, however, that she could not give her daughter that name because of the ridicule that it would bring. Yet Henrietta, conditioned to the deceptions that Viennese society imposed upon its Jewish populace, does not rail stridently because she cannot give her daughter a Jewish name, saying merely that the name is “unusual” and would have caused people to laugh at the girl. In this exchange, Appelfeld clearly expresses the insidiousness of the Jews’ overwhelming repression of their traditions and their acceptance of the conditions that would ultimately annihilate them.