Aharon Appelfeld

An Israeli author focused intently on the past.


One of Israel‘s most revered and prolific authors, Aharon Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now Ukraine) in 1932, to assimilated, upper middle class Jews. An only child, Appelfeld enjoyed a warm and happy childhood. But it was to be short lived. In 1939, the Germans invaded the region and his mother was killed. Appelfeld and his father were imprisoned in a Ukrainian concentration camp.

After being separated from his father (the two would meet again, 20 years later, in Israel), the young Appelfeld somehow managed to escape the camp. He spent the next three years hiding in forests, occasionally working for strangers in exchange for shelter and food. Eventually, he became a cook in the Soviet army.
Aharon appelfeld
Once the war ended, Appelfeld joined other survivors as they trekked through Europe towards Italy. From there, he set sail for Palestine, where he arrived as a 14-year-old boy, alone, uneducated, bereft of family, language, and home.

Appelfeld in Israel

Appelfeld’s early years in Israel were difficult. Zionist propaganda at the time insisted that the past was a needless burden that ought to be cast away. “Forget the Diaspora and root yourself in the present!” was a slogan Appelfeld heard often.

Living in a youth village populated largely by young survivors, and then serving in Israel’s military, Appelfeld found that the languages of his youth, primarily the German of his parents and the Yiddish he had picked up from his Orthodox grandparents, as well as his Russian, Ukrainian, Ruthenian, and Romanian, were fast slipping away. And so, he feared, were his memories.

But not all memories can easily be wiped away. In his memoir, The Story of a Life (2003), Appelfeld writes:

“I have forgotten much, even things that were very close to me–places in particular, dates, and the names of people–and yet, I can still sense those days in every part of my body. Whenever it rains, it’s cold, or a fierce wind is blowing, I am taken back to the ghetto, to the camp, or to the forests where I spent many days. Memory, it seems, has deep roots in the body.”

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Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Ha'aretz, Pleiades and The American Book Review, among other publications.

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