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Whither Dost Thou Hasten?’

Taken in conjunction with Panther in the Basement, these early stories make fascinating reading, the third in particular. This story is given to an outsider to narrate: an older man, Dr. Nussbaum, a neighbor of Uri’s (as Proffy is known in this incarnation). Nussbaum is a version of Sergeant Dunlop, attracted to the gifted, intelligent boy trapped in his fantasies. “He writes poems,” Nussbaum says, “about the ten lost tribes, Hebrew cavalrymen, great conquests, and acts of vengeance. Doubtless some little teacher, some messianic madman, has captured the child’s imagination with the usual Jerusalemite blend of apocalyptic visions and romantic fantasies.”4 From his conversations with Nussbaum it emerges just how inhumanly limited Uri’s inner world has become. “Nothing comes from words,” says Uri. “I’m very sorry. Everything is war…. That’s how it is in history, in the Bible, in nature, and in real life, too. And love is all war. Friendship, too, even.”

The child, to whom words are intensely important, pleads to have the secrets of the adult world and its “Underground” revealed to him, vowing that not a word will pass his lips, even under torture. There is a terrible irony to his plea, particularly when it is read in the light of the conclusion of Panther in the Basement, where Oz unveils (perhaps too gently and ruminatively) his final question to himself. Has he, Amos Oz, not betrayed the Uri and Proffy selves out of whom he was born by bringing the panther up out of the basement or the leopard out of the forest, that is, by exposing their secrets to the light and treating them with the amusement, even the mockery, that distance inevitably brings? Who is the traitor, and who deserves to be trusted: Amos Oz, author, or the Uri who promises Nussbaum, “They won’t get anything out of me”? (“Once more,” records Nussbaum, “the beautiful rage flashes in his green eyes and dies away.”) To betray oneself, one recalls, is an English idiom for revealing what one should not reveal. Panther in the Basement is not a vastly ambitious book, but it does, with a light hand, stir some of the deepest questions about the ethics of fiction-writing.


It has been forty years since I first harnessed myself to those racehorses known as trains.” “I detest those somber places called houses. I board the train, and instantly I’m borne aloft on the wings of the wind.”

The speaker, in Aharon Appelfeld’s The Iron Tracks, is Erwin Siegelbaum, trafficker in religious objects, who since the end of the war has been traveling the Austrian railroad network. In the closed world of the train system, Siegelbaum is a creature of ritual. He prefers classical music in waiting rooms, looks down on travelers who bring sandwiches and thermos flasks. As for sex, “There is nothing like love on a train,” but “for two stations and no more.”

The route Siegelbaum follows is circular. It begins each spring at Wirblbahn, site of the labor camp where he and his family were confined during the war—an “accursed place,” “a wound that won’t heal”—and ends twenty-one stops later, in mid-winter. Each stop evokes memories; following the circuit entails reliving his life.

On his circuit Siegelbaum visits country fairs, buying up the surviving relics of Jewish religious life (goblets, menorahs, old books), which he sells to a collector who will eventually ship them on to Jerusalem. But his travels have a darker purpose too: he is on the trail of Nachtigel, one-time commandant of the Wirblbahn camp and murderer of his parents.

As a family, the Siegelbaums had followed a pattern of assimilation common among Central European Jews. Erwin’s grandfather had been a rabbi in rural Bukovina; his father becomes a dedicated Communist who even in a labor camp holds to his new religion: “Not even in hell will I deny my faith in man.” “In a few generations people will remember us and say, Jewish Communism was the true Communism.”

Young Erwin (his name is a Germanization of Aharon) is brought up speaking not Yiddish but German and Ruthenian. He does not go to school, but instead shares his father’s clandestine Party life. His father’s job is to win converts among the Ruthenians. He does so by organizing arson and sabotage against Jewish factory owners, whom he treats as “the very source of evil.” His view of the Ruthenian peasantry, in contrast, is sentimental and uncritical. “Their way of life [is] correct and organic, and were it not for the estate owners and the Jewish merchants, they would live in complete harmony with nature.”

When war breaks out in 1941, the Ruthenians turn against the Jews among them. Of the Siegelbaums, only fifteen-year-old Erwin survives. After the war he finds himself in a transit camp in Italy, among hundreds of thousands of other displaced persons. He becomes a smuggler, trading cigarettes, liquor, and watches, and accumulates a modest personal fortune. Ignoring the Zionist call to emigrate to Palestine, he remains near the grave of his parents, following the path of the iron tracks, taking on the mantle of the Wandering Jew.

Appelfeld has acknowledged a deep debt to Kafka (whom he reads, in original fashion, as a Jew who in the course of being assimilated has lost the core of his being, and aches to recover it),5 and his landscapes certainly have the pared-down, abstract quality of Kafka’s. Nevertheless, The Iron Tracks is recognizably set in rural Austria.

The picture of Austrian life that emerges is as spiritually mean as anything produced by Appelfeld’s sardonic Austrian contemporary Thomas Bernhard. “In winter, latent hatred of the Jews arises here of its own accord. A single word is enough to rekindle the blaze.” “We killed Jews,” admits an army veteran. “It was dreadful work, but very necessary. Work that brought relief to the soul.” A convert to Christianity who has quietly preserved some Jewish observances pronounces her verdict. “I should have left this accursed land…. It should be wiped from the face of the earth, like Sodom and Gomorrah.”

How do you attain faith?” Siegelbaum asks a Jewish couple who, by living an isolated life, have preserved their religion. They do not reply. “If we say that we felt it was the only way we could live after the camps, would we have conveyed anything?” they seem to say.

Siegelbaum himself has no faith. But he does not live by faith: he lives by duty. His duty is “to find the murderers and kill them. As long as they live, our lives are not lives.” After the war, Commandant Nachtigel had escaped to Uruguay and stayed there until 1968, when he deemed it safe to return to his homeland. Siegelbaum tracks him down on a snowy country road. Nachtigel is old, toothless, sunk in depression. Siegelbaum shoots him in the back. But the success of his mission brings no release. “My deeds had neither dedication nor beauty,” he reflects, looking back. “I had done everything out of compulsion, clumsily, and always too late.” Commended for having saved religious objects from destruction (“The Jewish people won’t forget your contribution”), he can respond only with “raging anger.”

When Appelfeld began writing in the early 1960s, the Holocaust barely figured as a subject in Israeli fiction. The prevailing public position was a Zionist one: that the Holocaust had been predictable; that the Jews of the European Diaspora had failed to escape it because of a certain passivity, a certain blindness on their part; that this passive cast of mind would be eliminated, among survivors, by the new conditions of existence in Israel. Insofar as Israel was a new beginning, the Holocaust could have no relevance to its future.

Combined with this public silence was a feeling that there was something indecent in describing the Holocaust, that the subject ought to be, if not beyond the reach of language, at least out of bounds to anyone who had not lived through it.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 marked a watershed: a generation of Israelis educated under Zionism began to realize that the Jewish victims of the Third Reich could not be blamed for their fate and excluded from the history of Jewry. Since then a gradual shift in thought has been taking place, toward giving the story of European Jewry a larger place in the history of Israel, and thus toward accepting a conception of an Israeli identity more eclectic than that prescribed by Zionism in its pioneer phase.

As part of this shift, the Holocaust has forced its way back into Hebrew literature. The work of David Grossman, in particular in his novel See Under: Love (1986), can be read as an attempt to create a fictional language, drawing on the resources of international postmodernism, in which whatever has been unsayable about the Holocaust can be, if not said, then at least shadowed.

To this debate Appelfeld has been a somewhat peripheral figure. Although, with Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, he has been accepted as belonging in the front rank of novelists of his generation, he remains the most European of Israeli writers, mapping, in one short book after another, a narrow fictional territory based on his own, and his family’s, past. Of these books, one group (including The Age of Wonders, Badenheim 1939, The Retreat, and To the Land of the Reeds) deals with an assimilated Jewish society on the eve of the war. Another (including Unto the Soul, For Every Sin, and, most notably, Tzili) tells stories of physical survival during the war and in its immediate aftermath. The Immortal Bartfuss and, now, The Iron Tracks follow the fates of survivors of the war and the DP camps.

Appelfeld has testified eloquently to the struggle he faced before he could write about his own war experiences. (His mother was shot by the Germans, his father sent to a labor camp; he spent the war years wandering the Romanian countryside with other children, hiding, pretending not to be a Jew; he arrived in Israel in 1946, at the age of fourteen.) To begin a new life in Israel seemed to require a deliberate effort of forgetting. “[One] learned how to live without memory the way one learns to live without a limb of one’s body.” As for finding a form of “artistic expression” for his people’s suffering, this seemed merely insulting. “The pain and suffering called either for silence or for wild outcries.”6

Appelfeld was able to reenter his own past creatively only when he tried reimagining himself not as a clever young boy hiding from his pursuers but as a dull, inarticulate girl, Tzili. “Had I remained true to the facts, no one would have believed me. But the moment I chose [Tzili]…I removed ‘the story of my life’ from the mighty grip of memory and gave it over to the creative laboratory.” Faith in the power of fiction to recover and recreate the wounded self—“to give the tortured person back his human form, which was snatched away from him”—has since then lain at the heart of Appelfeld’s work.

Despite his ostensible confidence in the healing powers of art (which would make of him a simpler, less self-doubting writer than his master Kafka), the vision of the soul of the long-term Holocaust survivor that we get in Appelfeld’s fiction remains bleak. Both Bartfuss in The Immortal Bartfuss and now Siegelbaum in The Iron Tracks are men who have cannily used the confusion of the postwar years to launch themselves to material success; yet in their mature years they find themselves living impoverished, affectless lives, driven by compulsions they do not understand.

A distinguishing feature of assimilated Jews of the generation that perished in the camps, says Appelfeld, was “anti-Semitism directed at oneself.” As the critic Gershon Shaked has noted, one invention of Christian anti-Semitism that has engraved itself deeply on history has been the myth of the Wandering Jew, roaming the face of the earth, unable to attain the peace of death. Beneath the rage of Erwin Siegelbaum at the iron circuit to which he is bound we can detect a complex victimage: a sentence of self-hatred and self-punishment which, since it is handed down by an authority invisible to the sufferer, is understood not as a sentence but as a fate—a paradox worthy of the Kafka of “In the Penal Colony.”

The Jewish experience in the Second World War was not ‘historical,”’ Appelfeld has written. “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.” In his very ordinariness, Nachtigel embodies the same banal evil that Hannah Arendt recognized in Eichmann. Facing Nachtigel, Siegelbaum confronts, in a sense, evil; but it is an evil whose essence it is to disappoint and frustrate its hunters. Killing Nachtigel brings Siegelbaum no closer to release. In this respect The Iron Tracks is a deeply pessimistic and even despairing book, the darkest that Appelfeld has written.

  1. 4

    The Hill of Evil Counsel: Three Stories, translated by Nicholas de Lange (Harcourt Brace, 1991), p. 150.

  2. 5

    Aharon Appelfeld, “A Personal Statement,” in Tradition and Trauma: Studies in the Fiction of S.J. Agnon, edited by David Patterson and Glenda Abramson (Westview Press, 1994), p. 212.

  3. 6

    Aharon Appelfeld, Beyond Despair, translated by Jeffrey M. Green (New York: Fromm International, 1994), pp. ix, 35.

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