Celebrated novelist, shortstory writer and Israel Prize laureate Aharon Appelfeld died before dawn on Thursday at the Rabin Medical Center – Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva. He was 85.
A child Holocaust survivor, Appelfeld saw his mother murdered before his eyes in the street when he was eight years old.
Born on February 16, 1932, in the part of Romania which is now Ukraine, he was the only child of an assimilated Jewish couple, but loved to visit with his religiously Orthodox grandparents. That may explain his signature black-peaked cap which was a common form of head gear in Jewish villages in Europe.
Given his prolific output – Appelfeld wrote close to 50 books that were translated into 26 languages – it is difficult to believe that he had never read a Hebrew book until he was 25, and that he did not know a word of Hebrew when he arrived in pre-state Israel in 1946 under the auspices of Youth Aliya.
Not only did he become a writer who won awards abroad as well as in Israel, he was a member of the Hebrew Language Academy and a teacher of literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
When Appelfeld arrived in Israel, he had very little formal education, and was still catching up when he read his first Hebrew book, King of Flesh and Blood, by Moshe Shamir.
He said afterward in interviews that it had been a tortuous experience because he had to look up so many words in the dictionary.
During the World War II, Appelfeld and his father, Michael, were sent to a German labor camp in Romanian-controlled Transnistria.
The young Appelfeld escaped and went into hiding in the forests where he was adopted by a gang of Ukrainian criminals. Although his mother tongue was German, he picked up Ukrainian; later while working as a cook in the Red Army, he learned Russian. He was also fluent in Yiddish and in later life learned English as well.
He spent two years with the Ukrainians – who didn’t know that he was a Jew, using him as a gopher.
After that he was taken in by the village prostitute, who for five months provided a haven for him. After the war, he spent some time in a refugee camp in Italy, where he picked up a smattering of Italian.
For a long time, Appelfeld was under the impression that his father was dead, but he found his name on a Jewish Agency list, as well as that of the transit camp to which he had been sent.
Fearful that it might be someone else with the same name, Appelfeld, without making any prior contact, went to the field where his father was working. He recognized him from the back, approached him and said, “Herr Appelfeld?” His father turned around, stared at him and said nothing. He could not reconcile the young man standing in front of him with the boy that he had last seen many long years ago, the boy he thought was dead.
The reunion was so emotional that Appelfeld could never bring himself to write about it, and when he talked about the meeting, it was in the briefest of references.
All of his writings were overshadowed by the Holocaust and by his Diaspora experiences.
American Jewish writer Philip Roth, who was a friend and admirer of Appelfeld, called him “fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust,” and wrote: “The stories he tells are small, intimate and quietly narrated, and yet are transfused into searing works of art by Appelfeld’s profound understanding of loss, pain, cruelty and grief... He has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own.”
Best-selling author A.B. Yehoshua, who was a long-time acquaintance of Appelfeld, said in a radio interview on Thursday that although he lived in Israel for most of his life, Appelfeld could not be characterized as an Israeli writer, because he did not write about Israel. His subject matter centered on the Holocaust and on European Jewry.
When he was a boy in Romania, Appelfeld was known as Ervin which was the name his father always called him. His father never got used to the idea that his only son was no longer a boy, and even when he was married and the father of children himself, his father used to call him daily to remind him to dress warmly in winter or to make sure that he was protected from the sun in summer.
Appelfeld did a lot of his writing in Jerusalem coffee shops. His favorite was Ticho House, perhaps because of its European ambience.
He seldom talked above a whisper, and even then his voice was hoarse.
Appelfeld is survived by his wife and three children. His funeral will be held at noon on Sunday, at Beit Hahesped, Kehillat Yerushalayim, at the Har Hamenuhot Cemetery in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem.