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.”

Appelfeld focuses his writing intently on the past. In this regard he stands apart from other Israeli literary luminaries–Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman–whose novels are largely focused on contemporary Israeli life. Though Appelfeld writes in Hebrew, his stories are all centered on European Jewry, both before and during the Holocaust. But Appelfeld does not think this makes him any less an Israeli writer. “I write about rootless people,” he has said, and Israel is a “society of immigrants.”

After completing his army service, Appelfeld enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was his first formal education since first grade, when his schooling was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. At university, Appelfeld first began to write. However, “not being rooted in the language, not being rooted in the culture,” as he’s recalled, his early efforts amounted to “more a kind of stuttering than writing.” And yet, out of those stutterings emerged one of Israel’s finest writers. Indeed, Appelfeld’s bare style and Hemingway-esque prose still retain the innocent quality of uncertain stutterings.

To date, Appelfeld has authored more than 30 books including novels, short story collections, and a memoir. His works have been translated into more than 20 languages, and he is the recipient of several major awards, including the coveted Israel Prize and France’s Prix Médicis.

Communicating the Unimaginable

As critics have pointed out, Appelfeld’s works often focus on the outer margins of the Holocaust. Rather than the collective trauma of European Jewry, Appelfeld has said that he is interested in “the individual victim and his spiritual struggle.”

Tzili (1983), one of the author’s most acclaimed novels, tells the story of a dim-witted, young girl, Tzili, who spends the war years much like Appelfeld himself did, wandering from village to village, searching for food and finding shelter by passing herself off as a gentile. Tzili’s limited intelligence makes it difficult for her to articulate complex thoughts and emotions, but the sense of loneliness and dread that pervade her very being is palpable. The irony, of course, is that the war left even the most intelligent people at a loss, unable to communicate the unimaginable.

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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