The Iron Tracks
Four decades after liberation from a forced labor camp, Erwin Siegelbaum, narrator of THE IRON TRACKS, continues to be obsessed with the Nazi atrocity. He spends most of each year revisiting towns in Austria that, though now virtually devoid of living Jews, remain rife with anti-Semitism.
Every March 27, Siegelbaum boards the train in Wirblbahn, the location of the camp where both his parents died, and makes his way through twenty-one more stations, eventually completing his circular journey a few weeks before starting the cycle all over again. His ostensible purpose is to seek out and sell vestiges of vanished Jewish culture. His secret aim, however, is to track down and exact vengeance against the Nazi officer who ran the camp at Wirblbahn.
“Man is an insect,” contends Siegelbaum, for whom his Communist father’s irrepressible optimism is no longer tenable. “Not even in hell will I deny my faith in man,” proclaimed the father, from the hell of a Nazi concentration camp. But Siegelbaum has lost any faith he could deny.
THE IRON TRACKS culminates in the narrator’s confrontation with seventy-two-year-old Colonel Nachtigel, former commandant of Wirblbahn. It is as unsatisfying as everything else in the traveler’s blighted life. In his final sentences, Siegelbaum recognizes that “I had done everything out of compulsion, clumsily, and always too late.”
Aharon Appelfeld manages to endow this wretched, benighted existence with forceful aesthetic form, forging bracing poetry out of the very inadequacy of the human response to atrocity. The novel’s spare, laconic style reinforces its author’s respect for the limitations of art and the magnitude of its subject.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, January 1, 1998, p. 773.
The Boston Globe. February 15, 1998, p. E1.
Chicago Tribune. March 8, 1998, p. 5.
Kirkus Reviews. LXV, December 1, 1997, p. 1720.
Library Journal. CXXIII, January, 1998, p. 137.
Los Angeles Times. February 25, 1998, p. E2.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, March, 1998, p. 18.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 15, 1998, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 1, 1997, p. 46.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, February 15, 1998, p. 3.
World Literature Today. LXXII, Summer, 1998, p. 493.
The Iron Tracks
Though he did not begin to learn the language until 1946, when, at age fourteen, he left Europe for Palestine, Aharon Appelfeld is, along with Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, one of the preeminent figures in contemporary Hebrew fiction. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (then Romania, but now part of Ukraine), to an assimilated, German-speaking Jewish family, Appelfeld was deprived of childhood by the Nazis’ genocidal schemes. Both of his parents were murdered in the labor camp to which they were sent, but the eight-year-old Appelfeld managed to escape from captivity and survive on his own in the woods for two years. It is understandable that the Israeli author, described by American Jewish novelist Philip Roth as “a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own,” would return again and again in his fiction to the scene of the century’s most horrific crime.
First published in Hebrew as Mesilat barzel in 1991, The Iron Tracks is the eleventh novel by Appelfeld to be translated into English. Like most of the others, it is set in Central Europe, site of the monstrous endeavor to eradicate the Jews. Its narrator, Erwin Siegelbaum, whose first name is the German version of the author’s Aharon, is a fifty-five-year- old Holocaust survivor who, four decades after liberation from a forced labor camp, continues to be obsessed with the Nazi atrocity. He spends most of each year revisiting towns in Austria that, though now virtually devoid of living Jews, remain rife with anti- Semitism. Every March 27, Siegelbaum boards the train in Wirblbahn, the location of the camp where both his parents died, and makes his way through twenty-one more stations,...
(The entire section is 2,200 words.)