Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407
Seventy-nine-year-old Katerina, imprisoned for many years during the Holocaust, has returned to her Ruthenian origins in a fiercely anti-Semitic territory that has belonged intermittently to Romania, Moldavia, and Ukraine. When Katerina returns following the Holocaust, Ruthenia has been purged of nearly all its former Jewish population. A Gentile, Katerina has been imprisoned for murdering Karil, a fiercely anti-Semitic hoodlum who murdered her infant son, Benjamin, years earlier.
A social outcast, Katerina feels a greater affinity to Jews than to Gentiles. Her murdered son was fathered by Sammy, a fifty-year-old Jewish alcoholic. Despite the anti-Semitism that causes people in Ruthenia to avoid any outward signs of being Jewish, Katerina seeks out a mohel, the Jewish dignitary who performs circumcisions as dictated by Mosaic law, to circumcise her son.
When Katerina goes back to Ruthenia after an absence of sixty-three years, she lives in a squalid hut on the property where she was born and where she lived during her early years. Katerina has been sheltered from the Holocaust by being imprisoned for the forty years that marked Adolf Hitler’s rise and eventual collapse.
The only suggestion of what has been happening during this period are the boxcars filled with Jews that rattle past Katerina’s prison on their way to concentration camps, the trains leading inevitably to places of doom. Some clothing and other items confiscated from the doomed Jews are eventually distributed to the prisoners, but the actual horrors of the Holocaust are never spelled out: Appelfeld depends upon the memories of his readers to supply the gruesome details of what happened to six million European Jews between 1939 and 1945.
In Katerina, Appelfeld creates parallel worlds, that of the prison where Katerina is incarcerated and that of the Holocaust from which she is removed by prison walls. Before Hitler’s rise to power, Katerina was employed by Jews to look after their children. These children taught her to read Hebrew and to speak Yiddish. When she was incarcerated for killing Karil, she was abruptly removed from the society in which the Holocaust took place.
Sources for Furter Study
Booklist. LXXXVIII, May 15, 1992, p. 1642.
Boston Globe. September 27, 1992, p. 40.
Chicago Tribune. September 2, 1992, V, p. 3.
The Christian Science Monitor. September 23, 1992, p. 13.
Kirkus Reviews. LX, June 1, 1992, p. 683.
Library Journal. CXVII, June 1, 1992, p. 172.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 27, 1992, p. 2.
The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, November 5, 1992, p. 18.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 27, 1992, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, May 18, 1992, p. 59.