“Now there are no Jews in the world, and I’m the only one, in secret, evoking the memory of their holidays in my notebook,” writes aged Katerina, after emerging from decades of prison isolation into a Europe very nearly purged of Jews. The last Jew in the world, as imagined by Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, is a Ruthenian peasant with delusions of belonging to the breed that her fellow Gentiles are intent on eradicating. Katerina is set in a rural area claimed at various times by Romania, Moldavia, and Ukraine and tarnished by violent anti-Semitism. While Katerina is sequestered in a cell as punishment for carving up Karil, the thug who murdered her baby Benjamin, into twenty-four pieces, the Jews of Europe are transported to the Nazi death camps. “I only feel at peace among Jews,” says Katerina, whose anguish, after the atrocities of Adolf Hitler, can never be abated. Katerina is the luminously spare account of a simple woman’s picaresque, often sordid experiences as recalled after returning, at the end of her eighth decade, to the family farm where she began. The pilgrim’s progress of a holy fool, it is also a parable of identification with the Other, of empathy with the victim, and of redemption through degradation, suffering, and reconciliation.
“Nothing Jewish is strange to me,” replies Katerina when asked how she came to speak fluent Yiddish, a language scorned by the Eastern European Christians among whom she grew up. The phrase echoes Roman playwright Terence’s “humani nihil a me alienum puto”—the humanist credo of universal compassion; “Nothing that is human is alien to me.” The Jew as representative modern human is a familiar conceit in James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Bernard Malamud, and others. But in the treacherous Carpathian mountains after World War I, to elect an affinity with the Jewish Other is to test the limits of humanism.
In his ninth book published in English, Appelfeld performs a triple leap of emotional empathy. The narrator of Katerina is a woman and a Christian, and not only does Appelfeld—a man ineradicably Jewish to the rulers of the Third Reich, who sought to exterminate him—do a credible job of conveying her voice, he also imagines her imagining herself a Jew. “Imperceptibly, I had become bound up with the Jews,” confesses Katerina, who in that regard is also speaking for Christian Europe, obsessed with the race it tried to annihilate.
After years of living with them as a servant, Katerina, who flees her own abusive father, becomes more Jewish than the Jews. While working for one, a young pianist named Henni Trauer who is more dedicated to her career than to the customs of her ancestors, Katerina is covertly paid by Henni’s mother to keep a kosher kitchen. She observes the Jewish holy days and learns to read the Hebrew Scriptures. When her first employers, Benjamin and Rosa, are murdered, during separate pogroms, on Passover and Hanukkah, she runs off with their two surviving children and tries to raise them as Jews. When, after an affair with a boozy, lazy Jew named Sammy, she gives birth to a son of her own, she names him Benjamin and, though physical evidence of Jewishness is increasingly dangerous, insists on having his foreskin removed in accordance with Mosaic law. She wanders the narrow alpine roads searching for a mohel, a ritual circumciser.
Almost eighty as she tells her story, Katerina has returned to her native village after an absence of sixty-three years. She takes up residence, just after Easter, in a bare hut on her small ancestral farmstead. “It has one single window, open wide,” she explains, “and it allows in the breadth of the world.” Katerina is a short, simple tale of such extraordinary lucidity that it, too, seems to allow in the breadth of the world. Its world is one whose breath reeks of sots, bigots, and bullies. It is the genocidal territory that, more compellingly than any other Hebrew novelist, Appelfeld has staked out as...
(The entire section is 1,632 words.)