The Iron Tracks

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1860

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, eventually completing his circular journey a few weeks before it is time to start the cycle all over again. His ostensible purpose is to seek out and then sell the vestiges of vanished Jewish culture—menorahs, kiddush cups, and, especially, sacred texts. His secret aim, though, is to track down and exact vengeance against the Nazi officer who ran the camp at Wirblbahn.

“The trains make me free,” proclaims Siegelbaum, extolling his rootless, itinerant life. Though trains were the principal means of transporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to their destruction during the Holocaust, Appelfeld’s Jewish narrator perversely celebrates the iron tracks of Central Europe; he also bribes railroad employees to play classical music, which is what the Nazis arranged to be performed in the death camps in order to distract the inmates from the slaughter. “Arbeit macht frei” (“work makes you free”) proclaimed a sign on the gate to Auschwitz, and Siegelbaum seems to submit to this perverse logic, savoring his own enslavement to the undeviating railway route and to the horrors of the past. Siegelbaum embraces his fate as a contemporary version of the Wandering Jew—the legend, promulgated by anti-Semites, of a miscreant who, for denying Jesus Christ, was condemned to eternal restlessness. He pretends to find pleasure in his agony, liberty in his ironclad compulsions.

Siegelbaum finds fleeting relief from the burdens of the past in an occasional glass of cognac or in brief erotic encounters. However, nothing can divert him from his route along the iron tracks. “My memory is my downfall,” he explains. “It is a sealed well that doesn’t lose a drop, to use an old expression. Nothing can deplete it.” Yet for someone so obviously and thoroughly dominated by the past, Siegelbaum is remarkably frugal in sharing recollections.

During the course of recounting one year’s journey north from Wirblbahn, the narrator provides fragmentary details about his earlier life. Readers slowly learn that, though his grandfather was a rabbi, his parents abandoned Jewish tradition. Refusing to allow Yiddish to be spoken in their house, they reared their son to speak Ruthenian and German. Ardent Communists, they dedicated themselves to organizing the Ruthenian peasants and workers, often in opposition to Jewish entrepreneurs. After taking part in the assassination of the head of the secret police, Siegelbaum’s mother withdrew from political activity and from her marriage to his father. The young Siegelbaum spent much of his childhood out of school on the road with his father, moving among hostile Ruthenians who never accepted his Marxist faith or regarded the missionary as anything but an alien Jew. It is both ironic and appropriate that Siegelbaum now replicates the rootless wandering of his childhood and that he makes his living by trading in Jewish artifacts. He seeks out and sells ritual paraphernalia from a culture that was largely expunged from Austria; he acquires tattered books in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic, languages that he never learned (his parents, internalizing the ambient anti-Semitism, thought Yiddish “exuded the odor of grocery stores and sounded like the rustle of money”). When Mrs. Groton, an aging innkeeper in Pracht, insists on bequeathing to Siegelbaum the mezuza that her Jewish grandmother, who had converted to Christianity, passed on, he is reluctant to accept the amulet and unsure what to do with it. When August, the old quarter-Jewish peasant who lives in Zwiren, tries to give him a family kiddush cup, Siegelbaum is embarrassed by the trust. Appelfeld’s own painstakingly acquired Hebrew gives voice to a Jew who has been trapped in a cycle of self- loathing.

During the railway journey that he undertakes forty years after first departing Wirblbahn, Siegelbaum encounters numerous innkeepers, buffet managers, and merchants. Among them is a successful businessman named Max Rauch, a Jew married to an anti- Semite, who encourages Siegelbaum in his work and purchases his wares. Also notable is Rabbi Zimmel, who, despite failing health, insists on remaining in the village of Sandberg, the last surviving Jew, devoted to his sacred books. In Upper Salzstein, he greets old Comrade Stark, an unreconstructed Communist still active in the cause. A paternal figure to the orphaned Siegelbaum, who abandons him to an isolated death, Stark is writing a book with a title, The War Against Melancholy, that points to what the narrator has lost. “Man is an insect,” contends Siegelbaum, for whom his 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.

Contributing to the narrator’s melancholy and even despair is the loss of Bertha Kranz, the beautiful Jewish woman he met at the train station in Sternberg twenty years ago. She rejected his proposal of marriage and, a year ago, perversely returned to live in her home town of Zelishtshik, amid Poles and Ukrainians but no other Jews. Siegelbaum’s relations with other women are curt and carnal.

Though many characters are given names and are old acquaintances from earlier excursions, they remain spectral presences in the novel, not much more substantial than the “rivals” the narrator occasionally alludes to—a half-dozen or so unnamed, and perhaps unreal, travelers who he believes work the same route. Theirs, he is sure, is the identical objective of stalking the remnants of Jewish culture in a land from which, aside from a few pathetic converts and hybrids, Jews themselves have been removed.

Yet another mission beckons, one that, either because Siegelbaum lacks self-awareness or because it is an operation that requires discretion, emerges only gradually during the course of the narrative. Readers eventually surmise that Siegelbaum, who carries a pistol with him in his travels, is intent on tracking down Nachtigel, the Nazi colonel who ran the camp in Wirblbahn. Throughout his expeditions, Siegelbaum cultivates informants who provide him with news about his prey. After the war, Nachtigel had escaped to Uruguay, but he is now back in Austria, brazenly inhabiting a new house in Weinberg. The Iron Tracks culminates in Siegelbaum’s confrontation with the seventy- two-year-old mass murderer.

In the dining car of the train that carries him to Weinberg, Siegelbaum meets an amputee veteran who still boasts of his military service ridding the world of Jews. Siegelbaum beats the legless old bigot, but Nachtigel is another matter. What sort of tardy vengeance, if any, would be appropriate against the unrepentant, unregenerate demon who killed his parents and so many others? When he finally does catch up to Nachtigel, Siegelbaum’s banal actions lack moral grandeur or even dramatic power. They are as unsatisfying as everything else in the traveler’s blighted life. In the final sentences of his narrative, Siegelbaum recognizes that: “As in all my clear and drawn-out nightmares, I saw the sea of darkness, and I knew that my deeds had neither dedication nor beauty. I had done everything out of compulsion, clumsily, and always too late.”

Yet Appelfeld manages to endow this wretched, benighted existence with forceful aesthetic form. In Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth, a nonfiction book that he published in English in 1994, the novelist reflects on how meager the literary imagination is in its efforts to convey the enormity of the Holocaust. After Auschwitz, German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously pronounced, all poetry is barbaric. Appelfeld, though, has made bracing poetry out of the very inadequacy of the human response to atrocity. He has done so by returning again and again to the Holocaust, but by treating it obliquely. Wary of trivializing the Nazi horrors, Appelfeld almost always situates his stories at the margins of slaughter; they are placed either in the prologue to the conflagration, among characters too complacent to credit what is soon to occur—as in Badenheim 1939 (1980) or To the Land of the Cattails (1986)—or else, as in The Iron Tracks, among survivors coping with the aftermath of devastation.

The novel’s spare, laconic style reinforces its author’s respect for the limitations of art. Silence, whether in the mute depression to which Siegelbaum’s mother lapses or the terse remarks of Rabbi Zimmel’s cousin Lotte, is a persistent theme in The Iron Tracks. Recalling his romance with nineteen-year-old Bella immediately after the war, Siegelbaum is most wistful about her aversion to speech; he reamrks that “only with Bella did I know true silence. Today I know there is much pretense in talk. Only a quiet person earns my faith.” Amid the din of voices on the Holocaust, Appelfeld’s reticent narrator affirms: “Silence. That is what I need. And that is just what you can’t have on trains.” The silence toward which Siegelbaum aspires eludes him not simply because of the din of railroad engines but also because of the clamor of agonizing memories from which iron tracks offer no escape. “I hate rhetoric,” insists Siegelbaum, and in The Iron Tracks, as in ten other novels, Appelfeld fashions an elliptical rhetoric that does not betray the magnitude of his disturbing 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.

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