Aharon Appelfeld

An Israeli author focused intently on the past.

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Aharon Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939

Badenheim 1939

Badenheim 1939 (1979), another of Appelfeld's highly-praised works, is set in a resort town in Austria, mostly populated by assimilated Jews, on the eve of World War II. The town's annual summer arts festival gets off to a disappointing start when artists fail to arrive, without giving any notice. Soon, the roads leading out of the town are blocked off and all Jews are instructed to register with the "Sanitation Department." Eventually, the visitors learn that a transport is being arranged--one that will take them to Poland, where, they imagine, they will be able to start their lives anew. Though confused, the characters remain, for the most part, oblivious and happily naïve. Even once the cattle cars arrive, the Jews fail to recognize what awaits them.

Many of Appelfeld's works aren't directly related to the Holocaust at all. Laish (1994), for example, is set decades before the war. And yet, it communicates a similar sense of fear and isolation. The book's protagonist, Laish, a young orphan, is part of an eclectic convoy of Jews--among them thieves, rabbis, widows, and the aged--that is making its way toward the Promised Land. Numerous delays and distractions over the course of many years--including thefts, heavy rains, infighting, and an outbreak of typhoid--interrupt the course of the journey, time and again. Ostensibly, the only thing uniting the group is a common destination. But underlying this aspiration there seems to be a much deeper bond, one born out of a shared sense of rootlessness.

Children are central to many of the Appelfeld's works, and he often has children narrating his stories. "Every serious writer retains his inner child, because that is his innocence," Appelfeld has said. "The child within you is your first encounter with the world."

For Appelfeld, "to be a Jewish writer is a heavy obligation." As a survivor of the Holocaust, he feels a sense of responsibility toward the past, toward the memories of his parents and grandparents and the world they inhabited. Although he is often referred to as a Holocaust writer, Appelfeld resents being labeled as such. He has said that he does not see himself as a "chronicler of the war…I don't feel that I write about the past." Rather, literature, according to Appelfeld, "is an enduring present…an attempt to bring time into an ongoing present."

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Shoshana Olidort

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.