Righteous gentile

Aharon Appelfeld's Katerina reflects the Holocaust survivor's lasting faith in the human spirit.

katarina book 88 298 (photo credit: )
katarina book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Katerina By Aharon Appelfeld Translated by Jeffrey M. Green Reissued February 2006 Knopf 224pp., $13 History would have turned out very differently if there had been more people in pre-war Europe like Katerina, the title character of the Aharon Appelfeld novel recently published in paperback. Appelfeld, born in Romania in 1932, has created a heroine as unexpected and poignant as any in Israeli literature: a Polish Christian woman born in the late 19th century who spends World War II in prison and, by the time she's released, believes the world's Jews have all been exterminated. Alone in the isolated shack where she spent her youth, the old woman mourns their loss. The sadness steadily accumulates as Katerina leads the reader through her abused childhood, largely defined by an abusive mother and a detached alcoholic father. The character runs away from her impoverished home as a teenager and eventually ends up working in the home of a local Jewish family, an irony given the anti-Semitism the young servant inevitably absorbed as a child in the Polish countryside. The family's stability and basic decency aren't lost on Katerina, but she's initially uninterested in leaving behind the social acceptance and simplistic worldview her anti-Semitism provides. "We vied with each other in telling [anti-Jewish] jokes," Katerina says of her youthful working class peers. "We used to sing and curse the children of Satan, amongst whom everything is accounts, money, investment and interest." Still wounded by memories of her deficient childhood, the teenage runaway sees her situation grow yet more precarious with the discovery that she's pregnant. Just 17, the plainspoken housemaid expects to be fired as soon as her employers learn she's expecting, and she's surprised and relieved when it becomes clear they have no such intentions. After delivering a baby girl and leaving it outside a convent, Katerina returns to her domestic duties, where, slowly and at first almost unconsciously, the young protagonist is won over by the highly ordered lifestyle of her employers. They're the first in a series of Jewish men and women she will work for over the course of the next several decades, and over time the character picks up Yiddish and other elements of Judaism and Jewish culture. Impressed by the rigorous education provided to the two young sons in one household, Katerina herself learns to read and write, skills that help keep her sane during her later imprisonment. Hardship and tragedy strike frequently during Katerina, with local Jews attacked and their possessions looted at regular intervals. One of Katerina's most-beloved bosses, a studious, soft-spoken storeowner, is murdered during one pogrom, and his wife falls victim to a similar fate not long after. Katerina, by now the subject of suspicion because of her closeness with her Jewish bosses, floats in and out of employment for large sections of the story, wandering the Polish countryside and even living, for a time, with a Jewish man who fathers her a son. Though she never abandons her Christian identity, the character develops an ineffable attraction to Jewish employers, restaurants and even synagogues, where she impresses worshipers with her grasp of their language and her rare outsider's understanding of Jewish ritual and observance. When she's later imprisoned for her response to a Christian man's unwanted sexual advances, it's memories of her Jewish employers that sustain her internally and inspire her to defend the Jews whose situation continues to deteriorate on the other side of the prison walls. Once the Holocaust is underway, the other inmates happily accept clothes and other goods plundered from those Jews, and Katerina finds herself isolated yet again in her refusal to take part in the anti-Semitic merriment. Granted her freedom as an old woman, she returns to her native village believing the Jews have been eliminated and that she alone remains to remember their vanished culture and goodness. Delivered with remarkable effectiveness by the book's author, Katerina's simple words reverberate as powerfully as those of Jewish literature's most articulate characters. With her unadorned language and straightforward account of her own life, Katerina delivers a depth of feeling matched by few fictional narrators seeking to recount the extremes of historical hatred and violence. The character's lack of sophistication makes her a poignant figure in the landscape of wartime Poland, where an army representing one of Europe's most educated societies obliterated the Jewish community with the often enthusiastic help of the local population. Katerina's tale gains further poignancy when the reader reflects on its source; Appelfeld was himself deported to a concentration camp as an eight-year-old and, after escaping the Nazis, spent two years in forests not all that far from where the story is set. Appelfeld's heroine endures as a tragic example of wishful thinking, the kind of person whom, had there been more like her, might have created a different destiny for her annihilated Jewish neighbors.