The interminable train ride

Aharon Appelfeld draws extreme, almost archaic portraits of Jews, gentiles that sometimes seem too rigid and overly generalized, until one remembers that the author’s lens remains always that of his younger self.

Vienna ghetto monument 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT))
Vienna ghetto monument 521
(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT))
I must confess to feeling emotionally overwhelmed at the thought of reviewing Aharon Appelfeld’s latest novel, Until the Dawn’s Light. I felt a moral obligation to pay special attention to the revered Israeli author who has produced a tremendously acclaimed body of work about Jewish suffering. He has written over 40 novels, among them Blooms of Darkness, Laish, The Story of a Life, and The Iron Tracks, which won the National Jewish Book Award. Appelfeld is an elderly man now, and there was a small part of me, irrational but hopeful, that thought perhaps his latest writing would reveal that he had found some solace in his final years. But his new book possesses all the ferocious agony of his other works; perhaps more so.
And I had another problem. My heart still ached for him, for what I knew he had experienced during World War II – multiple horrors of unthinkable magnitude that mock the trials and tribulations of an ordinary life. Appelfeld’s story is unforgettable, and it haunts every word he has ever written; it is the rock-hard, bitter template upon which he has built his fragile and tragic worldview, one that really hasn’t changed in over half a century.
When Appelfeld was a boy of eight, the beloved only child of assimilated Jewish parents in Czernowitz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Nazis invaded and brutally murdered his mother in his presence. They forced him and his father on a death march to a concentration camp, from which he escaped. He spent the war years passing as a gentile orphan, often hiding in the woods, and living by his wits. Unbelievably his father survived the war, and the two men met decades later by accident on a kibbutz, an experience that rendered both of them temporarily mute.
The author has never professed to understand the gruesome indignities inflicted upon the Jews; his books attempt merely to recreate the emotional reality of living through those times. He has always been gripped by the compulsion to keep retelling different versions of what is essentially the same story: lives destroyed in an instant by barbarism, torture and an insanity that was unforeseen by so many prewar Jews of Europe.
When he was 55, he discussed his feelings about the Holocaust in an interview with Philip Roth, claiming, “The Jewish experience in the Second World War was not ‘historical.’ We came into contact with archaic mythical forces, a kind of dark subconscious, the meaning of which we did not know, nor do we know it to this day. This world appears to be rational (with trains, stations, and engineers), but in fact these were journeys of the imagination, lies and ruses, which only deep, irrational drives could have invented. I didn’t understand, nor do I yet understand, the motives of the murderers.”
In Until the Dawn’s Light, which takes place in turn-of-the-century Austria, a mother and her son are fleeing from something we do not yet comprehend.
What we do know is that they are in some sort of trouble, and danger lurks everywhere.
The little boy Otto is the product of his abusive gentile father Adolf and his Jewish mother Blanca, who has recently converted to Christianity. Otto is precocious and sensitive to his mother’s anxiety.
They are traveling on trains, arriving somewhere foreign and taking another train to somewhere else.
Blanca attempts to divert Otto’s attention by playing games with him and telling him stories, but “in her heart she knew she mustn’t lie; the boy was sensitive to contradictions. Still, she deceived him, distracted him, and concealed information.
Even worse, she made promises she couldn’t keep. Thus, she became the accomplice of the speeding trains: together they confused him.”
Immediately, as he has done so expertly before, Appelfeld transports us to his childhood world, a place of unmediated primal agony where the pending loss of his beloved mother is always present.
In flashbacks, we learn about Otto’s mother. Before marrying the sadistic Adolf for reasons that remain murky, she was a brilliant math student in school, much loved by her teachers and thought to have great promise. Her father, a gentle and loving man, had wanted to convert to Christianity, since he felt that the Jews had “lost their essence” and was upset by the limitations imposed on him by his heritage. He was barely able to make ends meet, while his friends who had converted were becoming physicians and attorneys and industrialists. Blanca’s mother would not permit her husband to leave the faith; they were not religious, but such a rebellious act would destroy her own mother, Grandma Carole, who would roam the streets of their small village warning Jews who had converted about the harm that would soon befall them.
Appelfeld draws extreme and almost archaic portraits of Jews and gentiles that sometimes seem too rigid and overly generalized, until one remembers that the author’s lens remains always the lens of his younger self. He is drawing upon his own recollections of a time when gentiles turned upon Jews with a violent shamelessness that shook the world. His portraits of gentiles as abusive, violent, alcoholic and without remorse are palpable to any Jew who has grown up the target of such blind hatred. Similarly his vision of Jews as weak and anxious and somewhat distracted channel his own remembrances, his emotions still raw and unmediated by time.
He never steps out of 1940, compulsively returning again and again to the day the Nazis came, and that is the fundamental nature of his powerfully spare prose. There is no synthesis or integration or digestion or analysis or even reflection; only terror.