Commentary Magazine

Aharon Appelfeld, Survivor

In the twenty-five years of near-silence following the destruction of European Jewry in World War II, those who managed to survive must often have wondered whether anyone but they would remember their trial. As they assembled memorial volumes bearing the names of their vanished communities, and erected monuments to the dead in local graveyards, they must occasionally have expressed a wish to hear some echo of their own remembrance among writers and organizations in the Jewish community at large and in the world beyond. Ghetto commemorations in those years, even when they were held in large halls, seemed to be taking place in basements or bunkers.

Anyone who attended such events in the early postwar years can also testify that there were serious differences of emphasis among the mourners, sometimes to the point of open friction. Arguments from the podium were not uncommon, and sponsoring groups sometimes split away from one another when their differences became too great for resolution. While some of the quarrels were over issues of high principle, most amounted to continuations of the same infighting among political factions that had existed before and during the war. When official spokesmen would appear on behalf of the organized community, offering fraternal condolences in English, voices would cry down from the balconies: “Speak Yiddish! The language of the martyrs!” Although such contentiousness interfered with the mood of collective sorrow, it was nonetheless inevitable. The solemnity of these occasions demanded strict supervision over what was being solemnized.

During the past decade, as everybody knows, neglect has given way to widespread interest in the Holocaust. Whatever the aesthetic or historical merit of the various memorial projects that have been undertaken, they are certainly preferable in their sum to forgetting. But one thing that is obscured by the neuter and rather abstract term, Holocaust, is the fact that every such project, every such work of art, is an act of interpretation, whether its creators know it or not, and perhaps especially when they do not. The attempt of the Polish government to use the fortieth anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto as a cosmetic advertisement for its “human face” is the most egregious recent example of political exploitation of the Holocaust. But there are other forms of exploitation as well. Each Holocaust “work” is a comment upon its subject, and it is seldom the kind of comment that the dead would have wished upon themselves. Just as whole generations of Jewish women, for whom modesty was among the highest human virtues, have been condemned to permanent public display in photographs of their final naked walk to the gas chambers, and have become pornographic exhibits in the museum of death, so those who have waited so long to see their experience acknowledged may now realize how little control they have over what shall be said of it.



These reflections have some bearing on the work of the Hebrew writer Aharon Appelfeld, this year’s winner of the Israel Prize for Literature, whose reputation in the United States was established by two translated novels, Badenheim 1939 (1980) and The Age of Wonders (1981), both greeted with very high praise by American critics. Now his latest book; Tsili: The Story of a Life,1 has appeared in English even before its publication as a book in Israel.

Appelfeld survived World War II as a child. Born in 1932 in the city of Czernowitz, then Rumania, now part of the USSR, he was sent with his family to a concentration camp from which he managed to escape. He spent the war hiding in the countryside, keeping what he calls the sweet secret of his Jewishness, while trying to survive exposure to the elements and to hunters of Jews. In 1944 he joined up with the Soviet army as a field cook, then made his way to Italy with a small tide of refugees, and from there, in 1946, to Palestine. Though he learned Hebrew only at this point in his life, he writes exclusively in his adopted language, and is known as one of its distinctive stylists.

Appelfeld’s short stories and novels are concerned with the effect of the war on the assimilated Jews of his boyhood milieu. His work is classified as Holocaust literature because of its subject matter and because of the sense of doom that presses down on most of his characters even when they temporarily manage to elude their earthly predators, yet Appelfeld’s writings are actually more engaged with the world into which he was born than with the forces that determined its extinction. Like Kafka, the writer with whom he is often compared and to whom he acknowledges a major debt, Appelfeld knew anti-Semitism from the inside, from the anti-Jewishness of his own home, before he encountered it in society, and it is this initial discovery that has remained the more decisive. The hostility of outsiders appeared to be almost proper retribution for the spiritual meanness of his assimilating family.

Among Appelfeld’s first published stories in the early 1960’s were disturbing studies of surviving Jews, tiny grouplets of people who had managed to elude their pursuers. “Right after the war, great opportunities opened up,” says the narrator of a story in which the characters are recuperating in a Displaced Persons camp near the Mediterranean before choosing the direction of their future. The heavy irony grows from page to page as the aspirations of these Jews reveal the depth of their deprivation. A man who has sheltered an orphaned girl for years in the forest now signs her over to a convent so that he can run off without encumbrance; he is invited by a friend to find compensation for this treachery in the notion that there the girl will learn French. The lure of “opportunity” thus turns out to be the same formula for assimilation that had corrupted Jewish life before the war; no sooner have the Jews survived the Nazi danger than they willingly return to the poisoned well.

Appelfeld conceives of this period after the war as a kind of wilderness, through which the Jews must pass before they can reach the promised land. Many fall away. As in the biblical story, the people are so badly demoralized that few who have escaped bondage are able to live in freedom. The refugees are sick and wounded. Epidemics rage. The starving are unable to adjust to the sudden glut of food, and die on the threshold of their resumed lives. Worse than the body’s failures are the weaknesses of spirit. The only remnant of traditional Judaism is the occasional madman preaching repentance. Except for one or two miraculous recoveries of nerve, the straggling survivors show signs of moral infection that appear to be beyond human cure.

Speech is a central problem. One of Appelfeld’s narrators loses his voice the moment the cover is lifted off the bunker in which he has been hiding. Another, recuperating in the hospital, wants to find an unwounded writer to record other people’s stories as well as his own “with the kind of detachment that makes observation possible.” Appelfeld’s characteristic narrator has an extinguished or muted personality, and moves somnambulistically as if afraid that his assumed equanimity will at any moment be shaken.



The dreamlike quality of Appelfeld’s fiction is immediately palpable in Badenheim 1939, the book that introduced the author to English readers. The novel opens as spring returns to the Austrian resort town of Badenheim, bringing with it the vacationers who form the basis of its economy. Townspeople and visitors have established over the years a routine of mutual accommodation. But this year, even as the guests begin to arrive, ominous changes are noted. The pharmacist’s wife, the novel’s Cassandra, has been having hallucinatory visions about the miserable fate of her daughter who has married a Gentile, and about her native Poland which beckons her to return home. Her husband gradually recognizes the logic of these premonitions as the “Sanitation Department” extends its jurisdiction into many areas of once unassailable privacy, requiring that all Jews, permanent residents as well as visitors, be registered.

The Badenheimers, however, have reached such a remote stage of acculturation that some of them have never even been recognized as Jews; the drama of their progressive unmasking is like the prolonged climax of a successful masquerade. Throughout the summer, as the town adjusts to every new discriminatory measure, the Jews, one by one, reluctantly or persuaded by an inner logic, accept the condition that has been forced upon them, and which culminates in their “return to Poland.” By the time the trains come to gather everyone up, some of the reconstructed Jews are even looking forward to the New Jerusalem they hope to find on Polish soil.

The book’s English title signals its prevailing mood of predestination (the original, with subtler irony, is called Badenheim, Resort Town). As if to underscore the element of frivolous self-deception in the whole process of Jewish assimilation, the characters are enclosed in their hotel as in a great amusement center. They are the spectators, the stagehands, and the entertainers; only the script is being written by higher powers. For so long the Jews had expressed their appreciation of European culture through dedicated participation in its high artistic forms. Now their German-Austrian hosts have rewarded them by casting them in the leading roles of this year’s drama, to be performed (like the passion play at Oberammergau) with the whole town’s cooperation. In Appelfeld’s novel they are good actors, playing to perfection the part of the compliant Jews.

One reviewer of this novel, in pointing to the Jews’ creative embrace of their function and to the spiritual verve with which they bring the drama to its conclusion, has praised Appelfeld for imbuing grim historical events with a real sense of artistic decorum, a com-media dell’arte charm. It is certainly true that the reader, if he does not derive actual pleasure, is spared undue pain from this stylized work of fiction whose plot is known in advance and whose characters all seem to accept its ineluctable denouement. The final image, of Jews sucked into trains “as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel,” leaves a lulling sadness, but no sharper emotion—no moral outrage, no disquieting hatred of the murderers, no panic about the human condition. The novel, like its characters, succumbs to the Germans and Austrians as if they were fate itself. It suggests that the return to Poland in cattle cars was implicit in the initial attempts of Westernizing Jews to transcend their identity, and that the best of them accepted the ironic reversal that restored them to their origins. In this way Badenheim 1939 spares its readers any confrontation with history, a process determined by the choices of living persons.

Though one can see why Appelfeld’s narrative scheme of fatal entrapment has been compared to Kafka, there is none of Kafka’s mystery here, nor any of his metaphysical doubt. Kafka’s view of incomprehensible authority arose from within himself, and was then projected outward; Appelfeld comes at writing from quite the opposite direction, taking the real terror imposed from without by real human forces and internalizing it, thereby further obscuring its origins and meaning.



The Age of Wonders is a less controlled and more complex novel. The narrative is divided into two sections: the first deals with the period immediately preceding the war, as remembered by the young son of an assimilated Jewish family in Austria, whom one cannot help associating with the author; the second recounts a visit by this son, the sole surviving member of his family and now a resident of Jerusalem, to his native town “many years later when everything was over.” In between has occurred the metamorphosis that accounts for the “wonders” of the title.

The novel traces the remorseless pressure of anti-Semitism in the late 1930’s upon a family that is ill-equipped to understand or to escape it. Under Nazism, the boy and his mother—expelled from an idyllic summer retreat—become aware of the meaning of their identity. The boy’s father, who had just begun to attain some recognition as a writer, is set upon in print by anonymous critics, and is gradually cut off from all his cultural outlets. This is the more unbearable to him since he shares in the general hostility to Jews, of whose evil and unpleasant ways he considers himself free.

The fate of the mother’s depressive sister, Theresa, casts a long shadow over the first part of the book. Confined to a sanatorium-convent, she is deeply attracted to Christianity, but this does not slow her slide into insanity and eventual death. Neither does the father escape, though he leaves his family in the attempt to do so; he is not rounded up with his wife and son and all the other Jews of the town for deportation, but eventually he is caught, and only the manner of his death remains uncertain.

The son’s return to his native Knospen many years after the war is inspired by an unwelcome invitation to help in the republication of his father’s work. The unchanged physical nature of the town, filled with so many familiar landmarks, leaves him unprepared for the difference he finds. He does meet among the townspeople a small group of Jewish “half-breeds,” including the illegitimate daughter of one of his uncles, yet he feels utterly alone. Then, at the very end of his stay, he makes real contact with one of the few local residents he still remembers from his childhood. This bitter old cripple allows the returning son to confront the past and warns him to get out of town, and to stop stirring up the old demons. “My hatred for the Jews knows no bounds,” he says with proud malice. Although the old man has fallen to the ground and is lying there helpless, the Jew hits him in the face at this provocation and replies, “Now it will be easier for you.” Having performed this act of purgation, he returns at peace to Jerusalem.



The ontological condition of this book is anti-Semitism, and one can think of few such thorough descriptions of its spread among Jews themselves. The boy’s father is the purest example:

Strange—Father was not angry with the friends who had abandoned him, the many societies that had stopped inviting him to their meetings. He was angry with the Jewish petite bourgeoisie. He spent his time writing pamphlets attacking the Jewish petite bourgeoisie, saying that they should be stamped out because they were selfish, narrow-minded, and lacking in true feeling. This was now his sole, burning, means of expression.

The boy, grown to a man, avenges his father by a peculiar act of definition: if six million corpses were not enough to satisfy the anti-Semite’s hatred, the Jew can at least refuse to play the complementary role of the self-hater. So he slaps his enemy, returning the aggression where it belongs. But he cannot slap his father for the inglorious and ugly legacy he has been given, nor can he free himself from its oppressiveness. “His father, his father—the wound that never healed.”

Unfortunately, Appelfeld himself cannot seem to get beyond this point, which may be summed up, in this reading, as the disgraceful Jewish desire to shed an unwanted Judaism in favor of all that once appeared so much grander: liberal, post-Romantic idealism; the mystical intensity of Christianity; the unexceptional bliss of a European bourgeois existence free of anti-Semitic persecution and history. Yet was it, finally, the desire that was venal, or the forces that first encouraged hope and then brutally denied it? The Age of Wonders ends with a view of the Jews filtered through a corner of the same anti-Semitic lens that first distorted their own view of themselves.

It is odd to read this novel alongside the recent Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by the German-language writer Gregor von Rezzori,2 who, like Appelfeld, comes from Czernowitz and is similarly obsessed by his childhood in that rich but troubled meeting point of European cultures. The five interconnected episodes of Rezzori’s book present vivid portraits of Jews who have stirred the narrator’s envy, lust, and the kind of passion that is alternately love and hate. His title notwithstanding, Rezzori tells us little about anti-Semitism and a great deal about the Jews. His narrator, an “ideal” anti-Semite, is inspired by the intensity of his absorption to observe every nuance and gesture, and as a result his portraits of the Jewish boy and of the several Jewish women who challenge his youth and spur him on to manhood are brilliantly fresh, without a trace of the morbidity and retroactive premonition that weigh down most other accounts of Jews in the period between the two world wars. Rezzori’s self-avowed emotional involvement with his characters produces an extraordinarily zestful memoir, one in which Jews are imagined in their full objective autonomy as persons. In contrast to Appelfeld, Rezzori succeeds in portraying Jews who remain gloriously untouched by, indeed triumphant over, the curse of shame which the narrator would visit upon them. Ironically, if one had the choice, one would far sooner be a Jew in his fictional world than in Appelfeld’s.



In Tsili, the latest of Appelfeld’s novels, the author seems to want to take a somewhat more affirmative view of his subject: rather than the sorry disintegration of the European Jewish collectivity, he treats the survival of a single worthy individual. The main character, Tsili, is a slow-witted girl, resilient and good-tempered but without the verbal facility and intelligence that are considered characteristic of the Jews and that are indeed characteristic of her highly assimilated and ambitious parents and of her studious brothers and sisters. So hopelessly inferior is Tsili that her parents engage a tutor from the nearby village to teach her Jewish prayers: she may as well know something. When the war breaks out, the family flees, leaving Tsili to her fate.

The book takes its revenge on this family. All but Tsili disappear, presumably forever, while she alone adapts successfully to the ensuing animal hunt. Her plain instinct for survival teaches her to endure the brutality of those who take her in as a servant in the winter rains, and to forage independently during the summer when she has no need for human shelter. One day she meets a stray Jew, whose way of speaking reminds her of her clever brothers and sisters at home. His gray flabbiness is as repulsive to her as her peasant strength is appealing to him. She instructs him in the mountain life, but as soon as he is sufficiently strong he is drawn back down to the people in the plain, and disappears. Tsili is left pregnant with his child and with a few remembered sentences that she holds precious.

As the war ends, Tsili joins the flow of refugees westward, survives the loss of her baby, and prepares to board a ship for Palestine. In the final pages of the book the company of callous, isolated refugees is addressed thunderously by Zionist organizers, whose words are as incomprehensible and inappropriate as were the injunctions of Tsili’s parents in the beginning. Nonetheless, though the words remain beyond her understanding, Tsili has rejoined the Jewish people. She has come through the war alone, intact.

This story of a life is told in a spare manner, as if adjusted to the limited mentality of its heroine. In its partisan sympathy for the simpleton over the worldly wise, it corresponds in form to many well-known folk tales. In Jewish folklore, Tsili may be considered a female version of the tam, the character of limited intelligence who is at a particular disadvantage in a community that places such value on learning and brilliance but who nevertheless triumphs in the end over those older and smarter. As the narrative structure suggests, Tsili wins a victory not so much over her would-be Nazi destroyers (unnamed and remote) as over those who in their hubris belittled her ability and were themselves destroyed.

Tsili is also reminiscent of one of Appelfeld’s earliest fictional heroines, a slightly retarded girl named Kitty who in the story bearing her name is granted asylum in a convent during the war as long as she seems a suitable prospect for conversion to Christianity. But once Kitty begins to develop into a young woman, and to take some interest in her physical life, she is suspected by her would-be “saviors” of being a damnable Jew. As the end of the war draws near, and “a final ceremony was still needed,” Kitty serves as a sacrifice. The Germans overrun the convent, and the young Jewish girl is betrayed and executed.

If preoccupation with her body is responsible for Kitty’s downfall, in Tsili the same preoccupation becomes a saving grace. Tsili stands in opposition not to the religious values of the convent, however, but to Jewish hyper-intellection and guilt. While all around her Jews are drawn to their death (several, having survived mass murder, commit suicide), she concentrates instead on the stark requirements of animal existence. Her survival, based as it is on growing strength and accumulated experience, is made to seem less a felicitous accident than the consequence of her difference from all the other Jews whose subtlety is here exposed as obtuseness.

Some critics have claimed that Tsili’s endurance is emblematic of Jewish survival. So Appelfeld may possibly have intended it; but it is in fact rather the opposite. The Cinderella of her own Jewish family and community, she exposes their self-absorption, the failure of all their protective strategies, their weakness, baseness, folly. Tsili is thus an emblematic tale of how and why the European Jews, in their vast majority, did not survive.



Contemporary Jewish literature has revived in secular form a longstanding theological debate over the responsibility of the Jews for the many destructions that have been visited upon them in history. Actually, religious thinkers and secular philosophers alike have so far offered a stiff and honorable resistance to the notion that the khurbn, the devastation at the hands of the Nazis, in any way represents an act of divine retribution for Israel’s sins. But in literature, just such a response to the Nazi atrocities has found a curious resonance. Without entering a straightforward moral judgment, without invoking the language of retribution, somehow the historical verdict has been turned inward upon the Jews.

In his writing, Aharon Appelfeld struggles with a very difficult personal inheritance—the culture of self-rejection in which he was raised and to which, despite everything, he remains attached by strong filial bonds. His desire to confront his past is inhibited by the terrible fate inflicted on the world of his childhood—as well charge your father with parsimony when he has been murdered for his wealth. In trying to achieve the necessary detachment, Appelfeld has cultivated an uninflected style, emotionally neutral, distant, impersonal. But the stifled anger of the son has been transferred onto the parents. Fate sits in judgment on all the ugly, assimilated Jews—fate in the form of the Holocaust. The result is a series of pitiless moral fables, more damning of the victims than of the crime committed against them.


1 Translated by Dalya Bilu, Dutton, 185 pp., $12.95.

2 Viking, 1981.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).

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