Until age seven or eight, Aharon Appelfeld led a privileged existence in the Ukraine, the only child of two doting parents. Suddenly his comfortable world was shattered. His mother was shot. He did not see her die, but he heard her screams as she was murdered by anti-Semites. Soon other members of his family also were annihilated. Finally the young boy and his father were forced to march for two months to a displacement camp, where they were held as prisoners. They marched in mud so deep that young children who were part of the march drowned in it.
The boy was separated from his father, but he was resourceful enough to escape after three years into the Eastern European forests that surrounded the camp. There, usually alone, sometimes with another escapee, he stayed until the end of the war, living as best he could. In the forest, he spent considerable time reflecting on the life he had once lived, especially the happy parts of it, memories of holidays with his parents and grandparents in the Carpathians. In this memoir, he captures many elements of his past life in a dreamlike way, perhaps the product of his musings during his time spent hiding out in the forest.
Because many of the events of his early life are too horrible to remember, Appelfeld represses them, but reading between the lines, one can glean some of the horrors that he has endured. He spent his early years lonely and threatened by forces of which he had reason to be terrified.
At war’s end, the young man made his way to Palestine. He needed to learn Hebrew, a difficult task for him. His years of isolation had limited his ability to use language, and soon his use of German, his mother tongue, declined. He began to feel as though he had no language of his own, and with this feeling came a sense of his losing his identity. He also was learning to use language with the verbal economy for which his writing has received favorable notice.