To the Land of the Cattails

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

One of the most widely respected contemporary Hebrew novelists, Aharon Appelfeld did not begin learning the language until emigrating to Palestine in 1946. A native of Czernovitz, Bukovina, a region between Romania and the Ukraine, he writes of the experiences of European Jews in the shadow of annihilation. Appelfeld’s parents both fell victim to the Nazis, but he himself managed to escape from the concentration camp to which he was sent at the age of eight. To the Land of the Cattails is Appelfeld’s fifth novel to be published in English, and it, like The Age of Wonders (1981), Badenheim 1939 (1980), Tzili: The Story of a Life (1983), and The Retreat (1984), confronts the Holocaust through delicate indirection.

Toni Strauss is an attractive Jewish woman who, at the age of seventeen, eloped with a handsome Gentile engineer. She abandoned her childhood home in Bukovina to follow him to Austria. August proved to be an abusive husband, and the marriage collapsed after three years and the birth of a son, Rudi. Over the years Toni has struggled under meager circumstances and in a town, Schoenburg, virtually devoid of Jews. When the latest in a succession of lovers, an elderly Czech, dies and wills her a substantial legacy, she is finally able to realize her persistent dream of returning home to Dratscincz, the town in Bukovina from which she had run away seventeen years before. She is eager to show her son the land of the cattails by the banks of the River Prut, where she had been reared as a Jew.

The six chapters of To the Land of the Cattails recount the journey Toni and Rudi undertake from Austria through remote rural lands on their way back to the Jewish family that Rudi has never known. They begin in late summer, and it is the subsequent year’s autumn before they arrive at the outskirts of Dratscincz. There is something vaguely allegorical about the expedition, and Appelfeld uses the passage of seasons to create a brooding sense of historical impermanence. It is not possible for Toni to go home again, however, as the world of European Jewry she once rejected is in the process of being destroyed. Appelfeld provides no explicit references to the ghastly historical events of the time, no cattle cars, barbed wire, or gas chambers, but such images haunt every sentence of his narrative. Even more than August, whom Rudi has not seen in years, the savage anti-Semites are the absent, brutal father of To the Land of the Cattails.

Along the way, Toni and Rudi encounter attitudes and omens that the reader is much better situated to understand than the innocent mother and son. They stop at a roadside inn shortly after its proprietor, a cultivated woman named Rosemarie, has been murdered simply because she was Jewish. Further on, they wander into a Jewish house whose inhabitants are nowhere to be seen. The closer they get to their destination, the more hostile are the people they meet en route and the more generally menacing the atmosphere seems to be.

A mere fifteen miles from home, Rudi insists on stopping at a tavern and indulging himself with food and drink. They delay their departure for several hours, but Toni finally becomes impatient and goes on home alone. When, two days later, Rudi eventually completes the journey to Dratscincz, he cannot find his mother. All the town’s Jews have been rounded up and sent away by train.

The relationship of mother and son is a focal point of To the Land of the Cattails, and it is also a basis for exploring the theme of what it is to be a Jew. Toni undertakes her journey to the land of the cattails in order to return to her mother and father and to draw her son closer to her own roots. She is fearful of the non-Jewish side she sees in Rudi—the ease with physical life she associates with Gentiles and distinguishes from the terminal discomfort of alienated Jews. “It’s important to me for my son to be Jewish,” she tells an innkeeper early in the trip. Simply by virtue of being...

(The entire section is 1653 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Alter, Robert. “Mother and Son, Lost in a Continent,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (November 2, 1986), p. 1.

Coffin, Edna Amir. “Appelfeld’s Exceptional Universe: Harmony out of Chaos,” in Hebrew Studies. XXIV (1983), pp. 85-98.

Lewis, Stephen. “Aharon Appelfeld,” in Art out of Agony, 1984.

Library Journal. Review. CXII (January, 1987), p. 54.

Yudkin, Leon I. “Appelfeld’s Vision of the Past,” in Escape into Siege, 1974.