A literary master

Aharon Appelfeld talks about the forces of evil, their effect on the Jew, and how this relates to his own writing.

Aharon Appelfeld (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aharon Appelfeld
(photo credit: Courtesy)
AHARON APPELFELD is a living literary master who has spent most of his life in Jerusalem. Born in 1932, in Czernowitz, a city that was then part of Romania, he was seven when World War II broke out. His mother was murdered in 1941, while he and his father were sent to a concentration camp. The child managed to escape and spent the rest of the war foraging in a forest, tending to a village prostitute, working with a band of Ukrainian thieves, and finally being taken as a kitchen boy with the Soviet Army.
At the end of the war, he made his way across Europe to a Displaced Persons camp on the Italian coast before finally immigrating to Israel in 1946 at the age of 13.
Appelfeld arrived in Israel without language or schooling. He studied Hebrew on a kibbutz, learning the letters by copying them out of the Torah, and later studied Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
He worked as a teacher, and went on to become professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, as well as a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Since 1962, he has published 40 books in Hebrew, and his novels have been translated into at least 34 languages. His artistic achievement is recognized the world over for its vision of tolerance.
Appelfeld has never expounded fashionable politics. In interviews and public appearances, in Israel and abroad, he insists that he is not a politician, but a writer dealing with emotions, thoughts and the stream of life. In his books, he portrays how people behave during conflict. These portrayals are so powerful that his books have been used in psychological therapy with survivors of genocide in Rwanda. The many international literary prizes he has received stand as proof of his deeper accomplishment: emphasizing emotional sensitivity and compassion in an age that is growing increasingly desensitized and indifferent.
Despite social and institutional pressure, Appelfeld has maintained his Diaspora roots while developing a unique perspective on Israeli society and its driving spirit. He also harnesses a deep knowledge of Jewish religion, mysticism and philosophy.
He is a witness, a survivor and a participant in Jewish history over the last century.
He experienced firsthand religious and secular Eastern European Jewish life between the world wars, overcame extreme conditions during the Holocaust, and took an active part, along with many survivors, in the establishment of the State of Israel.
In spite of great personal difficulty, he was able to weave these various experiences into a complex identity that refuses to negate the past in the name of a present or future. His vision of Jewish life is relevant across cultures because his focus is on how tradition and value are manifested, even if partially, in a variety of real historical circumstances.
Appelfeld has distilled major historical and cultural trajectories into critically acclaimed novels dealing with the plight of refugees, immigrants and outsiders. At the same time, he has portrayed the subtle working of microcosmic societies and the way civilization preserves itself in difficult circumstances. In his fiction readers find the complexity of human emotion played out against strenuous conditions in an environment of social heterogeneity. He makes the greatest difficulties relatable to readers through a portrayal of personal destinies that emphasizes humanity against the backdrop of inhuman experiences.
Appelfeld once spoke of World War II as a period that raised “archaic mythical forces, a kind of dark subconscious the meaning of which we did not know, nor do we know it to this day.”
With the rise of extreme violence, hate and destruction seen across the globe this summer – from Hamas’s war with Israel, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to the brutally efficient rise of the Islamic State, to the streets of European cities where the “other” is increasingly seen as an intruder and the Jew is singled out for attack – The Jerusalem Report took the opportunity to speak to Appelfeld about the forces of evil and how it relates to his writing.
The Jerusalem Report: Do you find that there’s a connection between trauma and ideology – on a personal and perhaps also on a national level?
Appelfeld: I never went in the direction of ideology or the direction of politics. I chose to go down the personal road – the one of personal experience. I believe that personal speech, personal creativity, personal vision – this is the deeper way and the right way. There are people who are ideological, didactic, and want to force their opinions on you.
I have no intention of forcing my opinions on others. What I do, is share my experiences with you. Not force them upon you. With every attempt to force something, there’s violence. I’m not interested in this violence. I’m ready to share and to give something of mine to you – but not by force.
And yet, forces of violence still appear, ideology still holds sway, and war is still waged.
I wrote a lot about World War II, about before the war, about after the war, and I’m not an ideological creature. But it’s interesting now to see how the West deals with the wild phenomenon that’s called the Islamic State.
During World War II, the powers of evil grew to demonic dimensions.
Why demonic? Because there’s evil, and there’s demonic evil. It’s clear that if a person wants to kill you and kills you, that’s evil.
But if a person doesn’t just want to kill you, but wants to torture you first, that’s demonic evil. The desire to kill you already has a demonic element – why would someone want to kill you? But to torture you is even more demonic. For example, playing classical music before killing someone, that’s already demonic.
And when I say “demonic,” I mean that it doesn’t enter the realm of the human. It’s inhuman.
What we’re seeing now is a phenomenon that is not simply evil. It’s meant to frighten you, to kill you in an unexpected way. There are many signs in it of the Nazis. Is there a solution? Is there a cultured solution? A nonviolent solution? No. Because it’s built itself up so much that such a solution is no longer possible. Human civilization is built on education, love for the other, consideration, mutual help. You have education and culture against barbarism. The problem is not to let the barbarism take control of the cultured world.
In “To the Edge of Sorrow” [a novel published in Hebrew in 2012], I write about a number of Jewish partisans who flee as a group – young, old, men, women, children. Though they have to fight against their environment, they preserve the image of humankind.
They study, they read the Bible, they sing, they converse. Not many remain alive, but those who do have done so with the image of humanity. It’s a group that fights evil. They educate the children, educate the orphans, make sure that each one has a book and not only a weapon.
When there’s evil in the world in a great quantity – personal, collective, tribal – the problem becomes relative. You try to do as little as possible. This group is in the mountains, the Germans want to kill them and they fight. But at night, when they return, they want to hear prayer, music, chapters from the Bible, poetry by [Rainer Maria] Rilke. This is what I mean by minimizing evil. They could capture a German and torture him – they don’t do this. They preserve the image of humanity.
There seems something very current about this theme despite the fact that the book is set during World War II.
Everything I write has the present as its perspective. I don’t write about the present. And yet what I write isn’t history. I write the present. When I write about the ghetto, it’s the present. If I could, I would write without the past tense. I’ve turned my past into the present. Literature is made of concrete actions.
It doesn’t deal with the past. It’s a concretization. I don’t deal with abstractions. I deal with concrete things. I don’t have such a thing as a Holocaust. There’s a hole, people are running, I’m running. Even if it deals with the past, it turns the past into the present. When you yourself are at the center, when the present is at the center, the human being becomes at the center.
People who write about the Bible aren’t writing literature. But people who write about the Bible as literature put themselves at the center – they write about themselves.
You adopt the past and turn it into your home, your language. You don’t speak in the name of the past, in the name of the king. It’s you speaking even if the king speaks.
You turn the Bible from something historical into something ahistorical. When in the Bible there’s talk of fear, disquiet, hate, love – this is not history. It’s above history. It’s humanity in general.
This is where literature is. When I was in America teaching writing, each time students went to write something they said they were going to do research. I told them – research inside yourself. Research is what one scholar or another says about something.
Writing doesn’t need research. It needs introspection.
You don’t expect a writer to give you new opinions about Biblical culture. You expect his “I.” The problem in literature is individuation. The child, the young man, the old woman – to be inside humanity.
Is this perhaps the emotional level of your work that allows readers to relate to such experiences or to feel that these experiences resonate with their own?
Nothing stands in isolation. Thoughts, feelings, imagination, memory – they all work together. We don’t say in an empirical sense, “Now I have these emotions.” They come immediately with thoughts, feelings, memories. A writer who writes too much about feeling is in danger of being sentimental.
A writer with too many thoughts will be a historian or a philosopher. That’s the difference between philosophy and literature: philosophy requires more thought than feeling. To be a literary writer, you need all the components in a balanced way. When the components come together, then it’s literature.
You once spoke of a literary project to explore Jewish life from the end of the 19th to the early 21st century. What drives this?
I had a “project,” as you call it, to understand myself within my generation. One hundred years is more or less my generation.
In these hundred years, Jews lost their Judaism. Until a hundred years ago, Jews knew what a Jew was. They didn’t need to ask, they didn’t need a definition.
From head to foot – the way they walked, the way they spoke – you could see it from far away. Starting in the mid-19th century, the Jew was no longer a Jew. There became many kinds of Jews. You still had the kind already recognized as a “Jew,” but you also had assimilated Jews who came to the front – Communists, Bundists, Yiddishists. They still had some connection to Judaism but they were no longer Jews in the old sense.
I wanted to cover all these Jews and understand them and get close to them. All of them.
This became a very interesting map. There are those who want to be Jews, who love being Jews. There are those who hate Jews and hate themselves. Zionism was anti-Jewish. It tried to change the Jew. The old Jews were no good. They had to undergo a reconstruction.
Israelis with a Zionist ideology – it’s sometimes hard for them to be Jewish. And, in our day, there are Orthodox Jews who read Freud and Wittgenstein. It’s a kind of poison inside Orthodoxy. They may not see it that way, but I know that Freud doesn’t strengthen Orthodox faith. I describe all these different kinds of Jews – good, bad, smart, stupid. I don’t have “Jews,” I have human beings.

And yet, these experiences shape one’s personality and identity – perhaps emerging as a so-called Jewish soul.
For me, the personal and the general is one.
Not in a metaphorical sense – literally. I was seven and a half when I was put in a Jewish ghetto. There was almost nothing else possible.
There was no place for the individual. I was with this group – with the Jews – and, if you’re with the Jews, you suffer. From a young age, I understood that I was connected to a collective – and that I can’t escape from this. It’s not a question of whether it’s something you want or don’t want. Later, in the camps and then in the forests to which I fled, I was a Jew. And with the Ukrainian criminals who adopted me, I was always afraid they would discover I was a Jew.
And yet in your books there are positive associations with being a Jew – like the idea of the Jewish “gift” or “spark.”
I’ve never painted Judaism as a burden. And I suffered! As I developed, I felt and still feel that it’s something with which I was blessed. I wouldn’t want to be something else.
What I want is to be maximum Jewish. Am I an Orthodox Jew? No. It’s a paradox. On the one hand, I want to be maximum Jewish. On the other, I come from a tradition. My parents were assimilated Jews and so I live this way.
But I also received a lot from my grandparents who were religious Jews from the Carpathian mountains.
In your novel “To The Land of the Cattails,” a mother takes her teenage son to his grandparents so that he understands who he is – Jewish. At some point, they’re separated and he escapes into the forests. But he later rejoins a group of Jews waiting at a train station. Unlike your readers, he doesn’t know what’s in store for him. What is this pull to go back to his people?
He chooses this connection though he knows it’s not necessarily a good connection.
It isn’t simple. After the war, I already knew that this pull is death. And, nevertheless I went toward this dangerous place. I could have gone to America, Canada, Australia. I would have disappeared. But I was pulled to go to the Jews – to come to Israel. I knew that Israel was dangerous. I didn’t have words to explain this – I didn’t have any language – I had an intuition.
And what did you find when you followed this intuitive pull?
I came to this land and there was already a separation between Jew and Israeli. They said that an Israeli is alive, a hero, a fighter – not a Jew who’s sent like a sheep to slaughter. I’ll give you an example. All the young people were sent to a kibbutz. I was 13. For them, a Jew was “the ghetto,” it was “suffering.”
My first struggle in Israel was whether I was an Israeli or a Jew. Even though I was educated to be an Israeli, I wanted to be a Jew.
There were many years of indoctrination in the kibbutz. But every chance I had to get out of the kibbutz, I went to the clubs where Yiddish was spoken – to talk to the people there, drink coffee with them, listen to their lectures. And even though they were older than I was by 10, 20, 30 years, I always sought their company.
How does one keep this paradoxical tradition alive?
Like everything in the world, things are only preserved if you love them. For example, I loved and love my parents, and the assimilation foundation is very strong with me.
But my religious grandparents, who lived in the mountains and grew vegetables, I loved them too, so somehow deep in my soul I’m also religious.
It strikes me that this personal loving image is far from the way that Jews are sometimes seen or portrayed from outside.
The dominant image is that Jews are demons.
No matter what they do. They do something good, they’re demons. They do something bad, they’re demons. This doesn’t leave us in a good place. If we continue to be seen as generalized or mythological Jews – it won’t be good.
Israel’s recent war with Hamas seems to have reinvigorated the image of the “Jew” as demon.
People who defend themselves engender hate. The rockets that fell on Tel Aviv didn’t cause major damage. But imagine a million children sitting in shelters afraid. [Hamas] shot in order to cause demoralization. They hid in homes, among children, and shot from there. If you want to speak of demons, they played the demon card.