“Everything about the Holocaust already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology…”
By Susan Miron
When I heard of my friend Aharon Appelfeld’s death (on January 4 at the age of 85), I was struck, after the initial grief, by how fortunate I was to have spent time with him in Boston, Paris, and at his home outside of Jerusalem. Appelfeld was a quiet but friendly gentleman, who, upon meeting someone he liked, would say, “come to Israel and visit me! We’ll walk. We’ll talk!” I took him at his word and, in 1994, traveled to his home with an ailing friend for a visit I have never forgotten. We walked through the gardens, the café TICHO House where he wrote several times a week, and then we sat and chatted for several hours more. What struck me most was his kindness and charm, his measured thoughts, and his impish sense of humor.
Learning of his death, I yearned to hear him talk again. I have read all of his books, but wanted to reconstruct his speech, share the writer I loved. Here, then, are his own words on his life and writing, culled from interviews, which he always seemed to relish. First, the obligatory biography that most Appelfeld fans know.
He was an only child named Erwin born into a wealthy Jewish family in Romania. His mother was murdered in 1941, when he was eight, sick with mumps. Hearing her scream, he jumped out the window into a field of corn and ran. With his father, he was deported to Trans-Dniester, in Ukraine. He escaped alone from a concentration camp there and headed for the forest where he spent the rest of the war foraging, tending to a village prostitute, working with a band of Ukrainian thieves, and being a kitchen boy with the Soviet army, all the time keeping his Jewish identity secret. At war’s end, he traveled through Rumania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, arriving at displaced person’s camp on the Italian coast before immigrating to Israel in 1946 at the age of 13.
“I was wandering for three years. There was no peace. The peasants, if they knew I was Jewish, would have probably killed me. So I had to be very alert, very careful.”
About his mother: “I remember her, but I would not say that this would be real, because in losing your mother in childhood, you are trying all the years to reconstruct her; so it probably would be a different mother than she really was. My feeling is that I remember her, but how much I really remember, this I cannot know. I was too young to be conscious…. We were with my grandmother at the farm. The Romanians and Germans came and they shot my mother and my grandmother. It was in the summer of ’41. I was nine and a half years old. She was thirty-one. I am now eighty-two. My mother will always remain young and I am going to be very old. She was a beautiful woman.”
His friend, American writer Philip Roth, called him fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust, which Appelfeld bristled at, replying that while much of his fiction involves Jewish life in Europe before, during, and after the Shoah, his focus was far broader:
“Jewish loneliness, immigration and — as he once joked to the New York Times — ‘trivialities,’ the depiction of “small, ordinary, unheroic people.” “You cannot be a writer of death. Writing means you’re alive,” Appelfeld concluded. Roth accurately called him “a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own.”
“In my works I have chosen domains in which people still have their own image. They still see and hear; they can still analyze in some way what is happening to them. In addition, it was important for me to stress that the Holocaust was not a sudden arbitrary catastrophe. It is related to the fate of the modern Jew who wanted to be part of Western civilization, and was vomited out — or more precisely, crushed — by this civilization. This requires a reckoning, especially in literature. Therefore I had to connect the story of the Holocaust with what preceded and followed it.”
“Everything about the Holocaust already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology…. When I say to bring it down to the human realm, I do not mean to simplify, to attenuate, or to sweeten the horror, but to attempt to make the events speak through the individual… to rescue the suffering from huge numbers, from dreadful anonymity, to restore the person’s name, to give the tortured person back his human form, which was snatched away from him.”
After settling in Israel, Appelfeld yearned to take part in the adventure of the birth of a new nation. “Everywhere the slogan was “forget,” but I wanted to remember. To be close to people who went through experiences similar to mine. Even later on, I did not want Israeli localism…. I came from a different world — a different geography. I come from a world that suffered terrible catastrophe, and this experience requires a different language, a different tone. I came to Israel when I was 13½, almost 14. I was without friends, without a family, without parents. I knew a lot of languages, but I didn’t possess a written language. Hebrew became my step-mother tongue….”
“Naively I believed that action would silence my memories, and I would flourish like the natives, free of the Jewish nightmare, but what could I do? The need, you might say the necessity, to be faithful to myself and to my childhood memories made me a distant, contemplative person. My contemplation brought me back to the region where I was born and where my parent’s home stood. That is my spiritual history, and it is from there that I spin the threads….”
When asked how many books he had written, he replied “Forty-two, and somehow they are like one book. It is always my enlarged eyes on my parents, my origin, my experience.”
Among my favorites of Appelfeld’s novels:
The Age of Wonders (1981)
Badenheim 1939 (1978)
To the Land of the Cattails (1986)
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.