One of the most important writers in the state of Israel, Aharon Appelfeld (born 1932), wrote feelingly of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. He was a recipient of the Israel Prize for literature.
Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 into an assimilated Jewish family in Bukovnia, then part of Poland but later annexed to the U.S.S.R. (now Russia). His mother was killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and he was deported to a concentration camp. He managed to escape and joined the bands of children wandering in the forests of Poland. After three years he was picked up by the Soviet army in 1944 and worked in the kitchens in the Ukraine until the end of the war.
After 1945 Appelfeld traveled to Italy and finally went to settle in what is now Israel in 1946. Until then his main education had been in the concentration camp at Transniestra, and he did not go back to school, even in Israel. However, he studied Hebrew and Yiddish at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as well as serving in the Israeli army. He also taught at the Haim Greenberg College in Jerusalem.
Appelfeld studiously avoided any realistic depiction of the Holocaust in his writings, preferring allegory to the fictional representation of historical events. He did not consider it easy for a survivor such as himself to play the role of intermediary between contemporary readers and the actual events themselves. There is a danger of the writer hiding the appalling events from himself, though this in turn can lead to what Appelfeld saw as a "covenant of silence."
One way out of this dilemma taken by a number of Jewish writers has been to retell biblical tales which have experiences that parallel those of the Holocaust. Appelfeld, on the other hand, chose a more personal style based upon a concern for small details. He avoided grand themes, and even many Israeli readers found some of his writing frustrating for its apparent placelessness and unwillingness to engage directly with historical events. Appelfeld's main concerns were individual alienation and the struggle by survivors of the Holocaust to discover meaning in a world where it appeared to be impossible to banish guilt for having survived while so many fellow Jews perished.
The Jews depicted in Appelfeld's stories frequently appear oblivious or reluctant to confront the true reality of their situation. Badenheim 1939 (first published in English in 1980), for example, portrays a Jewish community in a town in Austria becoming the victims of an escalating anti-Semitism that finally leads to their deportation to Poland by the all-powerful Sanitation Department. Though outwardly life appears to continue as normally as possible, this is really a nightmare world that closely parallels that of Franz Kafka, whom Appelfeld saw as a close model for much of his writing. Even at the final denouement when the community is taken away in cattle trucks, one of the key figures in the story, Dr. Pappenheim, is left speculating that the dirty state of the coaches must mean that they were not going far.
Appelfeld tried to engage less the experience of the Holocaust itself than the social and moral climate among the European Jewish community accompanying its rise. While these Jews are seen as victims of this anti-Semitism, they are not entirely excused from moral guilt in failing to resist it. In The Age of Wonders (first English edition 1981) Appelfeld showed the refusal of a cultured literary Jewish family in Austria to face up to the true nature of their situation, with the recent arrival of the Ostjuden from Eastern Europe used as the explanation for their predicament. The novel presents a direct encounter between the past, narrated in the third person, and the present, in the first person, through the eyes of Bruno, the son who manages to survive. Within this framework, though, there occurs a vital literature of memory as the family life of assimilated European Jewry is recreated. The bright colors and happy laughter at the start of the novel give way to greyer tones as human relationships become progressively stretched.
Appelfeld's characters have difficulty with social relations. There is a strong suggestion of misogyny in his depiction of women, who are frequently seen as lacking moral depth and easily seduced by men. In a number of his stories the mother-son relationship is shown as the only one with any true meaning, whether it be Bruno and his mother in The Age of Wonders or Bartfuss and his mother in The Age of Bartfuss (first English edition 1988). Women are often shown as fighting unsuccessfully with their animal natures, such as the servant girl Louise in The Age of Wonders, or else remain rather placid and shadowy figures, such as Arna in The Land of Cattails (first English edition 1986).
Behind this mother-son relationship lies an unresolved quest for moral purity and social cohesion. The Land of Cattails can be read as usurping one of the major genres of European literature, that of the quest for adventure in the form of the romantic hero and his faithful lieutenant, whether this be Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Kipling's Kim and the llama, or even Batman and Robin. In The Land of Cattails the central figure is Rudi, whose mother, Toni, embarks on a quest from Austria back to the homeland of her parents in Eastern Europe. The absurdity of the quest is revealed by the fact that most Jews are trying to flee from the home that Toni has imagined as a rural idyll free from the conflict of Vienna. When she does finally reach her destination ahead of Rudi the Jews are about to be deported, and she disappears. Rudi is left at the end trying to make what meaning he can of his life in the context of the progressive round-up of the Eastern European Jewish population.
Appelfeld's writing ultimately fits into the literary tradition of the outsider trying to establish and defend his or her own area of moral freedom. The sad story of Bartfuss in The Age of Bartfuss is set in contemporary Israel. Bartfuss is the quintessential outsider, as in the fiction of Camus or Sartre. He has come to doubt the integrity of his wife, Rosa, whom he avoids as far as possible, and is estranged from his disabled daughter, Bridget, who, after first fearing her father, tries desperately to forge some form of relationship with him. Bartfuss has a few friends from the time he was in Italy before going to Israel, though some refuse to recognize him, finding the past too painful. The one woman, Sylvia, who does recognize him from the past, tragically dies.
Appelfeld continued to be a major literary figure into the 1990s with The Healer (1990) and The Railway (1991). His books about the Holocaust continued to have a worldwide audience. He made frequent trips abroad, with public appearances to promote his books and to share with others the Holocaust experience. The Immortal Bartfuss and The Healer were translated into Japanese in 1996. During the 1997 Prague Writers Festival he participated in public conversations with Robert Menasse on "The Disappearance of Centeral Europe".
Appelfeld felt himself to be a writer still searching for roots in modern Israel. He continued to experiment with a language, Hebrew, that he had to learn as an adult. His relationship with religion was only a tenuous one, since the world of the concentration camps seemed to be one of blind fate. None of the characters in his stories find any solace in religion, and the ultimate hope, Appelfeld has suggested, lies more in the building of tribal and communal bonds than in turning unquestioningly to a religious faith.
Further Reading on Aharon Appelfeld
For more information on Aharon Appelfeld, see Esther Fuchs, Encounters with Israeli Authors (1982); Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (1982); Alan Mintz, Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (1984); and David C. Jacobson, Modern Midrash: The Retelling of Traditional Jewish Narratives by Twentieth Century Hebrew Writers (1987). More information on Appelfeld and other literary artists can be obtained from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.