Tales of Two Aharons (Extract)

Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Two writers: One reflects the shadow of the Shoah, the other the emerging State of Israel Aharon Megged and Aharon Appelfeld were both born in Europe - the former in Poland in 1920, the latter in Romania in 1932. Both reached Israel, were educated here, and entered the literary world while the state was still young, writing in their adopted language of Hebrew. But that is where the similarity ends. Megged's family made aliya early - he was 6 and he had a normal childhood in the exhilarating days of the "state-in-the making." Appelfeld went through the excruciating experiences of the Holocaust and the death of his mother in a concentration camp when he was 8. This may help account for the fact that while Megged hoes the fields of Eretz Israel, Appelfeld ploughs continuously the lives and deaths of those Jews caught up in the dark ages of the Shoah. The difference in their subject matter and their consequent approaches to writing can be clearly seen in these two latest offerings - recent translations of earlier books by both authors. Appelfeld's "All Whom I have Loved," originally published in 1999 in Hebrew as "Kol Asher Ahavti," is translated in clean, unfussy prose by Aloma Halter. Once more, the author displays his characteristic approach to those dire years: Instead of describing the momentous events directly, he focuses on the minutiae of individual people's lives and responses, dealing with the horrors of anti-Semitism and Nazism in subtle, almost imperceptible ways. As in such works as "Badenheim 1939," and "Tzili," he shows the interplay between everyday "normal" Jewish life in Europe and the massive historical events swirling all around them, whose significance is often unknown to his protagonists. Unlike the earlier books, in "All Whom I Have Loved," set in Eastern Europe in 1938, the characters do not engage convincingly with the wider darkening landscape. The narrator, 9-year-old Paul Rosenfeld, often seems too precocious, with his adult questions and observations. His mother, Henia, is an assimilated Jewess, with little regard for her Jewish roots. Having divorced Paul's father, she meets a gentile physical education teacher, Andre, and marries him after converting to Christianity. He eventually abandons her, after she has switched from being a doting parent to one who has lost all interest in her only son. She eventually contracts typhus and dies a ghastly death. The father - Arthur - once a successful avant-garde painter and now criticized for being "decadent," relates to Paul mainly by being stonily silent. To the outside, anti-Semitic world, he rants and raves at its continuous injustice toward him; not only does he turn to drink, he also quite frequently assaults those who taunt him at the least provocation. At one point he even manages to fuse the two categories of enemies, when, in another drunken outburst, he shouts: "All anti-Semites will have to give account, and the day will come when they'll be put into the same prison in which the art critics are put." Despite being prosecuted for his violent behavior, he remains unrepentant and even promises his son: "As long as I breathe, I'll be beating up anti-Semites and art critics." Eventually, he himself is shot while attempting to save a Jewish shopkeeper from robbers. Appelfeld seems merely to be reiterating a fairly banal observation, namely that the exile is an unnatural place to be for Jews and that the sooner they leave it the better. But even this sub-text is hardly more than hinted at, along with other possible themes, which somehow remain inchoate. Moreover it's not clear why the Holocaust is invoked here. Couples divorce and assimilate under a whole variety of circumstances. These sad people could have suffered the same fate even without that terrible event. As a novella or a short story, it might have worked better. As it is, "All Whom I have Loved" (the title is never explained) remains an enigmatic and somewhat unrealized work. Mordechai Beck is a Jerusalem-based artist and writer. Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.