In 2021, as the end of the year approached, I began to think in earnest about what I wanted to read in 2022. My focus was on non-religious books. I live by two calendars, one religious, the Hebrew calendar, and the other secular, the Gregorian calendar. The Hebrew New Year, Rosh HaShana, occurs a few months before the Gregorian New Year. So, by the time I was thinking about the 2022 reading, I had already settled on the religious texts I wanted to tackle in 5782. Neither reading plan is immutable, but, for the most part, I try to stick to them.
Years ago, I had read a couple of Aharon Appelfeld‘s novels. I had a few others unread. I decided to try and read an Appelfeld novel a month. Appelfeld’s works are written in modern Hebrew; I would have to read him in translation. I intended to read through his work chronologically as it was translated and published in English. Thus far, I have completed four of them: Badenheim 1939, The Age of Wonders, Tzili, and The Retreat. Two of these I had read previously: Badenheim 1939, and Tzili. A note in Tzili indicated that I read the book while on vacation in Tennessee in 1994. Badenheim 1939 would have been read before that.
A side note: my favorite American author is William Faulkner. I grew up in Mississippi and visited Faulkner’s home in Oxford twice. His home is named Rowan Oak . A hallway runs the length of the house from the front door to the back door. Rooms adjoin each side. The first room on the left was Faulkner’s library. During my first visit, I learned that the author wrote a note in books that he had read, indicating that he had completed them. I took on the idea, and it has become a habit. I have found it helpful and hope that my children will do so when my collection of books passes to them. In Faulkner’s case, the practice has the additional merit of letting us know what he had read or was reading during the writing of his works.
I have read numerous works about the Shoah, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry; I have also seen many movies, documentaries, and creative films about the period. I have visited museums of the Shoah in the United States, Israel, Germany, and Poland. I have been to Dachau and Auschwitz. Many of the works I have read or watched have a lot of detail about the physical horror and cruelties endured by the victims of the Nazis. But in no writer other than Appelfeld have I been made to feel the psychological stress, the deep, dark shadows of the Holocaust as powerfully, fearfully, and oppressively as he portrays it. If there is any counterpart, and it’s not a fictional one, it’s Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. But that’s a single work. Appelfeld’s are many and sustained over years.
In Appelfeld, I haven’t yet met any Nazis or been in any camps. But, I have experienced the suffocating nature of the world in which European Jews found themselves, the slow but steady erasing of their humanity, the constricting power of discrimination, the loss of freedom. Ultimately I experience the victims’ alienation, their displacement. Like many things that frighten us, it’s the warped psychology of the monster, the inexplicable feelings of the fiend who torments rather than the beast itself, that is so destructive. The shadow of the shaking limbs of a tree scares and catches us off-guard, not the tree itself. It’s the bark, not the dog, the raised hand, not the blow.
Because we know what happened during WWII, Appelfeld’s portrayal of the path leading to the pit is more potent than the pit alone. I have to confess that I can read Appelfeld only in small snippets. Otherwise, I would not be able to continue to read and finish a book. It’s as if my head, mind, and brain are attached to a funnel with an emotional marker indicating how much I can experience of certain things over time. I can only handle them at a specific rate. I have to respect that, get up, make a cup of coffee, take Kulfi, my dog, for a walk, or check and see what my wife is doing. I have to remember to breathe.
Of the four books I’ve read so far, my favorite, if that’s the right word, is Tzili. The book’s subtitle is “The Story of a Life.” I like the book because of Tzili herself; she is the quintessential survivor. Let me share the book’s opening paragraph to give you some idea of its character.
Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus’s life untold. Her fate was a cruel and inglorious one, and but for the fact that it actually happened we would never have been able to tell her story. We will tell it in all simplicity, and begin right away by saying: Tzili was not an only child; she had older brothers and sisters. The family was large, poor, and harassed, and Tzili grew up neglected among the abandoned objects in the yard.Aharon Appelfeld, Tzili: The Story of a Life
It’s not hard to find the well from which Appelfeld has drawn his stories. It’s his own incredible life. He was born in what is now Ukraine, but in 1932, the year of his birth was in the Kingdom of Romania. At the start of WWII, like many others, his family fled east toward the USSR. They made it but weren’t safe for long. The area was overtaken by the enemy, and Appeldfeld’s mother was killed. He and his father were sent to a labor camp from which Aharon escaped. He was just a young boy. Appelfeld lived on his own for some time. Eventually, he made it to the Soviet army and worked for them as a cook. After the war, Appelfeld spent time in Europe as a displaced person. He made his way to Italy and, from there, eventually, in 1946, to what was then known as Palestine. He was fourteen when he arrived, with no family.
There is some light in his story. Unbeknownst to him, his father had also miraculously survived. He found him in Israel after the war. Their reunion was so emotional that Appelfeld could not write about it. I met Appelfeld once in the late 1990s. I had gone to hear him speak on a book tour held at a synagogue near where I was living in Philadelphia. I brought a copy of one of his new books and asked him to please sign it. He looked up at me; he was seated at a table, smiled, and spoke to me in Yiddish. I could not answer him. I cannot adequately describe his sad expression.
Given the emotional power of Appelfeld’s writing, I can’t unequivocally recommend him to all readers. That may sound odd, but to read him can hurt, and it can hurt deeply. Readers need to know that before opening one of his books.
Three sentences end the novel The Retreat, the one I just finished, that capture in a nutshell the power of Appelfeld’s shadows:
I don’t know if the last sentence was what Appelfeld experienced between 1932 and 1946. I kind of doubt it. But I know from the works I’ve read that it’s something he could have hoped.
All the best,