Aharon Appelfeld's haunting Holocaust story starts with the prescient line “Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus’s life untold.” The ritual character is a 12 year old Jewish girl living in the Ukraine, when her large family abandons her at their family farm. Tzili is somewhat dim, only ever able to remember a single prayer in school, and her mother assumes no one would ever harm such a pitiful child. However, the cruelty of invading Nazis knows no bounds, and Tzili, of course, is eventually forced to flee, herself. It's a near auto-biography of the author, who escaped a concentration camp to the Ukrainian wilderness for three years before joining the Russian army as a kitchen boy. However eerie the similarities to his own life, Appelfeld did endeavor to write a work of fiction, and by removing his own experiences onto an older girl, he allows himself to explore different avenues.
Silence is a big theme of the book, the lone Tzili hiding like an animal through the seasons. She meets brutal peasants in Winter, and endures the lascivious behavior alone. Tzili works hard during this season, along with Summer and Autumn as she forages and lives in absolute nature. She spends two years, abused by the peasants she serves and finding solace in talking to the cows. The end of the novel sees her joining a band of roaming survivors, and the book doesn't end happy—the aftermath of the physical and psychological destruction of the Holocaust impacts the entire band very deeply. Tzili is a deeply sad character, and almost nothing good happens to her the entirety of her life. There are no easy endings, especially not in this book of a harrowing experience from the eyes of a girl constantly underestimated and taken advantage of.
In Tzili: The Story of a Life, Tzili Kraus is in some ways Appelfeld’s female counterpart. As the story opens, she is the least favored of her parents’ children because she, unlike her older siblings, is a poor student, something not to be encouraged in a Jewish-Austrian family with intellectual pretensions. The family, turning its back on its Jewish heritage, glories in its assimilation.
Tzili, a taciturn child, plays on the small plot behind her parents’ shop, ignored by parents and siblings. She is abused because of her poor academic performance and is viewed as retarded. Her parents employ an old man to give their unpromising child lessons in Judaism, but she does poorly even in these lessons.
When it is apparent that fascists are about to enter their town, the Krauses leave, but Tzili stays behind to guard their property. She sleeps through the slaughter that ensues, covered by burlap in a remote shed. Now Tzili, on her own, must live by her wits. Part of what Appelfeld seeks to convey is that her inherent instinct for survival will serve her better than her family’s intellectuality serves them. The family disappears, presumably victims of the Holocaust.
Appelfeld makes Tzili the symbol of a Judaism that survives through sheer pluck during a time of overwhelming difficulty....
(The entire section is 792 words.)