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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] Karl Kraus.” It seems likely.

The most shocking thing about this novel is not its satirical humor, though, but its charm. Appelfeld manages to treat his appalling theme with grace. The atmosphere is not so much tragic as imbued with a Watteau-like melancholy. The characters emerge like Gilles from their bosky setting: funny, sad, helpless commedia dell’arte figures, touching but not to be taken quite seriously. Diverse as they are, most of them share a gentle dottiness, an endearing Donald Duck irritability quickly melting into good nature and sentiment. Their pathos is enhanced by the fact that they are bent on pleasure in a pleasure resort. “Regardless of their doom the little victims play.”

Only one of them has any sense of “ills to come.” The book opens with a mysterious, ominous passage about the local pharmacist’s wife, Trude. Barely convalescent after a whole winter’s illness, she is very pale, and as she watches the visitors arrive, they all look strangely pale to her, “like patients in a sanitarium.” She is “haunted by a hidden fear, not her own.” She is also haunted by memories of her childhood on the Vistula and gradually “a number of Polish words surfaced in her memory, and whenever they came back to her she smiled.”

The reader shares her sense of doom and unlike her knows exactly what it is to be. All the other characters refuse to see or even guess at it. They cooperate with events. In fact, you might call this work a scherzo on a theme by Arendt. That would be a remark in bad taste, but then Badenheim 1939 is, at least in part, a bad taste joke—made with exquisite taste. A bunch of Bouvards and Pecuchets, Badenheim’s inhabitants are comforted by clichés and idées reçues. People in Poland, says a member of the hotel orchestra, “may be poor, but they’re not afraid of death.” “Why send us there at all?” asks another. “Historical necessity,” replies his friend. It becomes generally acknowledged that the climate in Poland is exceptionally healthy, that cultural standards there are of the highest (the musicians are urged to practice extra hard), and that in any case it is a good thing for people to return to their roots. The pastry cook is relieved to think that his pension will be paid in Poland as in Austria, and Mrs. Fussholdt is discouraged by the thought that she will still be forced to listen to concerts and poetry readings when she gets there.

In their insane optimism the victims find encouragement—even take pride—in the efficiency of their persecutors. “The emigration procedures seem very efficient—very efficient indeed, if I may say so,” says Dr. Pappenheim. When one of the deportees runs amok he is pacified by being told that he will be able to appeal to a committee. “The words procedure and appeal seemed to satisfy him.” On the other hand there are also outraged objectors who “write long detailed letters complaining of all the inconvenience that had been caused by the disconnection [of the telephone]. They demanded compensation from the travel agencies, from the authorities who were detaining them there.” The more important they are, the greater their indignation. “The Academy doesn’t answer my letters!” says the famous musician Mandelbaum. “You hear, the Academy ignores its President, it denies its Founder! Isn’t that food for thought?” Dr. Pappenheim, thrilled to have captured Mandelbaum for his festival, hastens to soothe the great man by pointing out the special charm of this particular season: “The guests are an extremely pleasant lot. And this year, due to the restrictions, the atmosphere is intimate.”

Another possible attitude to the authorities is to declare that they have made a mistake, even to excuse them, because mistakes are only human. This is the line taken by Dr. Langmann, the anti-Semitic Jew. He would never have chosen a Jewish resort. “They drove me here on the grounds that I’m a Jew. They must mean the Ostjuden. And I’m, like you, an Austrian…. Let them send the Polish Jews to Poland; they deserve their country. I landed in this mess by mistake. Can’t a man make an occasional mistake?” Appelfeld is a Proustian connoisseur of intra-Jewish snobberies. Frau Milbaum is even grander than Dr. Langmann. She has had two titled husbands, one with royal blood in his veins. This does not impress the officials, who only want to know her father’s name. But she considers the other guests “riff-raff” and shuts herself in her room to write letters “about those clowns, the Ostjuden, who had taken over Badenheim and were dragging every bit of true culture through the dirt.” No wonder the musician Samitzky has a chip on his shoulder about having emigrated from Poland as a child fifty years ago, even though he has “a surreptitious affection” for the land of his birth.

The hatred of the assimilated Central European Jews for the Ostjuden from Eastern Europe is a major theme. The deportees crowding into Badenheim and the summer visitors already there accuse each other of being Ostjuden, and the Ostjuden in general of being the cause of what is going on. On the other hand some of the characters in their new and threatening circumstances seek strength in acknowledging the Eastern past they have tried to suppress and advertise their pride in it. They begin learning Yiddish: the headwaiter finds “the language very interesting.” When an ancient orthodox rabbi appears among the deportees the agnostic Germanized summer visitors eagerly adopt him like some folkloric mascot. “This is our rabbi,” boasted Dr. Pappenheim. “A real rabbi of the old school.”

But underneath this conscious revival of pride in their origins there is something much more strange and sinister, a genuine Sehnsucht for the East. Sick Trude is the first to feel the pull back to the suffering from which they have all escaped either in their own or in their forebears’ generation. The pallor she sees in their faces from the very beginning is not meant to be, I think, simply the pallor of impending death: their sickness is a longing for suffering and death—and it sends an unfamiliar and uneasy frisson down the reader’s spine.

Aharon Appelfeld was born in Czernovitz in 1932. His mother was killed by the Nazis; he was put in a labor camp and escaped, aged eight. “For the next three years,” says the book jacket, “he wandered the forests.” He was picked up by the Red Army and eventually reached Palestine via Italy in 1946. Now he teaches Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University at Beer Sheva. From that vantage point can he be saying that being Jewish is an incurable disease? His astonishing novel is much too subtle for any message to come belting out of it. The translation from the Hebrew reads very well indeed, except for one thing: where English speakers would say people (“people were preoccupied with their own affairs”) it says the people: which gives an incongruously Biblical touch.

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