The Appelfeld miracle

Tension, double vision, remembering, forgetting and yearning define the work of Aharon Appelfeld.

Yad Vashem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yad Vashem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

How many authors write things no one wants to read, let alone publish, and yet later find themselves celebrated for discussing those very things no one wanted to read in the first place? This is the improbable story of Aharon Appelfeld, whose life and career has been called a “miracle” by his friend, the American professor of Hebrew literature Avraham Holtz.

He was a man without words or language, beginning life in a new country. What made Appelfeld unique among the Israeli writers of his generation is that he refused to forget his past. He continued to think about the then Romanian city of Czernowitz where he was from (it is now in Ukraine), and about his family, mostly perished.

Appelfeld wrote about his European past, and about the Jews who lived there and are no longer, and got others to acknowledge that past. This is what made it difficult for him to find a publisher at the beginning of his career, and paradoxically, what lends him such popularity today.

When Appelfeld arrived in British Mandatory Palestine from a displaced persons’ camp in Italy in 1946, he knew German, his native tongue. His formal education ended after the first grade; he spent the ages of eight to 14 hiding from the Nazis with various groups in the woods.

Appelfeld summarized this period by remarking to an audience at a conference on his work in October organized by the University of Pennsylvania that he possesses a “diploma” from horse thieves, since criminals and outcasts were the only ones who would allow a young Jewish boy to remain among them in those years. His second-grade year was spent in the home of a prostitute who sheltered him.

Once Appelfeld arrived in Israel, he sought out formal education as much as he could and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with Gershom Scholem, Yehezkel Kaufmann, Shimon Halkin and Dov Sadan. He saw Sadan as “hamoreh,” the teacher, and according to Holtz (Simon H. Fabian Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York), was the only one who asked Appelfeld whether he needed new shoes or a place to sleep (the answer was yes to both).

Appelfeld published his first book of stories, “Ashan” (Smoke), in 1962 (printed by a Bukharan vegetable seller and his printer brother because no publisher would accept it, according to Holtz). Since then, he has written over 40 works, at the rate of nearly one a year. Throughout, Appelfeld has continued to write about Europe and the lives of Jews both before and during the Shoah, as a Jew who writes in Israel in Hebrew. This is at the heart of all of his oeuvre.

The conference at Penn included scholars from the Middle East, Europe and North America and was sponsored by the university’s Jewish Studies Program, Kelly Writers House, and Middle East Center – as well as Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which will house Appelfeld’s archive after his death. Its moving spirit was Nili Gold, Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gold told The Jerusalem Report in an email that the “external reason” for bringing Appelfeld to Penn was that “he is nearing the age of 80, and this was a wonderful way to celebrate it.” The writer had not been to the US in over 10 years. However, for Gold, the interest in Appelfeld is more personal. He is from the same town as her late mother and the conversation she held with him was “both a homage to a writer I love and a nod to her memory.”

The familial feel of the conference began with its opening session, a talk by Prof. Moshe Idel, the Max Cooper Professor of Jewish Thought, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Idel is from the same region as Appelfeld, Bukovina, and his wife is from Czernowitz. Idel spoke about the different religious groups active in Czernowitz and its region to give factual background to Appelfeld’s fictional depictions.

The sense of intimacy was complete when in the culminating session Appelfeld took part in a public conversation with Gold, the two of them sitting in overstuffed chairs at the front of the auditorium, talking to their audience like members of a family enjoying a quiet chat. At the conclusion of their discussion Gold remarked that “You have made this big room into a tiny intimate space.”

Indeed Appelfeld’s soft voice carried the audience along as he thanked the organizers for bringing him, saying that he feels a freedom in the US which he does not feel in Europe, “maybe because I am Jewish,” and proceeded to answer Gold’s questions in a voice described by her as “calming.”

He talked about his life and experiences during the war and how, when he came to Israel, he was told that in writing “you should be positive.” He however did not want to write the books of the kibbutz, the new Jew and soldiers, but “books to bring back” the world he had left.

Through writing he could bring back those who had vanished, and “bring up the world inside” himself, the memories he could not repress. The one question Appelfeld did avoid was how it felt for him to meet up with his father after the war in Israel, when neither had been aware that the other had survived and come to Palestine.

In fact this is an aspect of his life that is never explored, in his fiction based on his experiences and his memoirs. He spoke of all his characters being

an “extension of myself” and that he writes as though for a friend, “to give him something of myself.”

This sense of writing as being something given to others carries over to Appelfeld’s writing life. He is famous for writing in cafes because “You’re alone and with people at the same time.”

Appelfeld seems to find being an observer and listener in a group more natural than speaking and standing out. During the conference, there was an exchange between Iris Milner of Tel Aviv University and Yigal Schwartz of Ben-Gurion University, about what happened to the main character in Appelfeld’s 1989 novel “Katerina,” each having a different opinion.

One might think that an author would want to publicly state which, if either, idea about his work was correct. In fact, Appelfeld remained silent during their discussion, which involved a moment when Milner made a comment saying as she spoke, “I’m not looking at Aharon,” and Schwartz rejoined, “He’s looking at you.” Still, any self-consciousness the critics had about the hubris of speaking of the work of a living author in the room with him seemed deflected by Appelfeld’s modesty.

The writer told The Report when asked how it felt to be in the same space as those discussing his work that he finds it “interesting” to see how “people see themselves in my work.”

This authorial unobtrusiveness, evendeference, was reinforced by an anecdote told by Holtz of an occasion when Appelfeld was present in one of his classes while his work was being discussed. The writer told the surprised students about their teacher, “Whatever he says is correct.”

This sense of a double vision – that he lives in Israel but is writing about Europe – came through clearly in the conference session that was the screening of a 1998 movie “All that Remains,” produced for Israel Educational Television, about a visit Appelfeld made to his birthplace in search of his mother’s grave.

As Millicent Marcus, professor of Italian at Yale University and a writer on Holocaust and film, remarked, the image of a rain-spattered windshield at the movie’s opening, showing the countryside of Czernowitz yet blurring it simultaneously, the “superimposition,” “montage” and “overlap” of one place on another is an apt metaphor for Appelfeld’s attitude to the place where he was born.

One of its most moving aspects was to see faces of the villagers, for some say they knew him, while others don’t quite remember that there were once Jews living in their homes. Marcus remarked that there was something “spectral” and ghostly about much of the discussion between Appelfeld and the villagers in the movie. At its close, Appelfeld says: “There is nothing there. That is all that remains, ruah (spirit)."

As Appelfeld said in a 1998 interview with Yad Vashem about the difference between survivor testimony and his fiction, “The testimony doesn’t create circles and doesn’t reverberate inside.”

That is the impact of Appelfeld’s writing – to create reverberations in the reader and in society. Appelfeld’s work is characterized by this continual tension between what Schwartz has said is “the necessity and/or the desire to forget and the necessity and/or desire to remember.”

At the conference’s culmination, before Appelfeld began his conversation with Gold, he was presented with a 1935 first edition from the Berlin Schocken Verlag press of Kafka’s collected writing by Prof. Rebecca Bushnell, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn. In remarks composed by Gold, Bushnell noted that the book was a fitting gift for the university to give, as Kafka admired the autobiography written by its founder, Benjamin Franklin.

The gift was also unusually appropriate for its recipient, as Appelfeld looks on Kafka as one of his literary mentors. “Kafka was a Jew in his heart and soul,” said Appelfeld in the 1998 interview.

“He learned Hebrew and Yiddish. He attended a beit midrash in Frankfurt and he wanted to settle in Palestine.… I don’t mean that he proclaimed his Jewishness every morning, but that he was connected with Jewishness in every sense of the word. For example, the pounding at the castle – the desire to enter and understand this mystery – is a very Jewish longing.”

The tension and double vision, the necessity of both remembering and forgetting, and of yearning, lies at the heart of the work of Appelfeld. This makes him especially important now, when there are fewer and fewer people alive who experienced the Holocaust themselves and can speak about it, in all its nuances and complexities.

Appelfeld’s work encompasses contradiction – he writes exclusively about Europe and Jews ambivalent about their Jewishness as an Israeli writing in Hebrew. These contradictions are evident in his latest work to be translated into English, “Until the Dawn’s Light,” translated by Jeffrey M. Green, and published by Schocken Books: the Hebrew original appeared in 1995. The novel traces the life of Blanca, a promising high-school student with top grades, and her marriage to the abusive Adolf, abandonment of her father, birth of a son, Otto, and eventual violent escape from her life.

What makes his fiction noteworthy is the simple and spare way he can evoke very complex ideas and emotions with few phrases and careful use of language. His character Blanca tells another woman about her upbringing that “'In my house we didn’t observe the tradition,’ said Blanca, realizing that it wasn’t the full truth.” This is the central dilemma for Appelfeld’s characters, both here and in many of his works. They know themselves to be Jews and can’t avoid that, yet they continue to convert and assimilate.

Once converted from Judaism to Christianity in order to marry her husband, Blanca is disgusted by his relatives and his abusive behavior. She is saved by the kindnesses of others – the doctor father of a Jewish classmate who has become a nun, a woman who works in an old-age home who has also experienced abuse at her husband’s hand, and those who shelter her and her son when she is fleeing.

The novel opens with Blanca and her son setting out to find safety, and is interspersed with flashbacks to the different past parts of Blanca’s life. This method works well in telling the tale of a woman who is fleeing her past life and deeds, yet yearns to have what her mother had, “a hidden connection with the faith of her ancestors.” When told, “You have to go your own way” Blanca replies. “If only I knew the way.”

The complicated inner lives of European Jews, assimilating and converting on the one hand, yet yearning to find their way back to an authentic faith with all the contradictions this entails, are portrayed skillfully by Appelfeld in Jeffrey Green’s serviceable translation.