Before the Deluge

Badenheim 1939

by Aharon Appelfeld, translated by Dalya Bilu
David Godine, 148 pp., $10.00

In the spring of 1939 the visitors begin to arrive for the season at Badenheim, a Jewish summer resort not far from Vienna. Full of cheerful anticipation, they are only slightly put out at having to register with the Sanitation Department, whose representatives seem unusually numerous: still, that can only be for the public benefit. Posters appear advertising holidays on the Vistula, and a rumor starts that everyone is to be taken to Poland. Restrictions begin to be made: the swimming pool is closed; the entrances to the town are barricaded off; the mail stops coming. The visitors continue to stuff themselves with strudel and ice cream, to gossip, to flirt, to rehearse for concerts and recitals; some take to the bottle. A food shortage develops, not improved by the arrival of large numbers of strange Jews who have already been moved on from somewhere else. The pharmacist’s shop is raided and people munch quantities of drugs. The buildings begin to look neglected, creepers cover the windows, autumn comes with a strange orange light and cold winds. As conditions worsen, the inhabitants become positively impatient to leave. In the last paragraph an engine with four filthy cars arrives to take them away. “If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go,” says Dr. Pappenheim, the impresario of the Badenheim festival. The Holocaust is about to begin.

The content of Badenheim 1939 is disturbing, and so is its form. It is a fable—but only just. The protagonists are not horses, or pigs, or denizens of other times and planets, or even Everyman. They really are Jews, and under its banal all-purpose name Badenheim is as real as Kafka’s unnamed Prague, a typical resort with lawns and lilac, a Konditorei at its hub and woodland walks all around. Some of the characters are nameless: the conductor, the headwaiter, the schoolgirl. The heart sinks at this, but there is no need to worry: the chill hand of allegory lies very lightly. The characters with names are no less and no more symbolical than the ones without: each represents a stage in life, a profession, a status, and an attitude—or in some cases, like the schoolgirl’s, the lack of an attitude—toward the sinister events of the story. By spreading the narrative fairly evenly among them the author makes it impossible for the reader to attach himself too strongly to anyone: which is just as well, or the end would be too harrowing.

Besides, this is a very funny novel, While young Mrs. Fussholdt in her bathing suit on the lawn is slowly going out of her mind with boredom, Professor Fussholdt sits in his room correcting the proofs of a book on satire, “the only art form appropriate to our lives.” Is he speaking for the author? And does the author agree with him that “if anyone deserved the title of a great Jew…it was [not Herzl or Buber but …

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