Richard Wagner received a letter one day from a young musician in Kharkov named Joseph Rubinstein. “I am a Jew,” ran the first sentence. “By telling you that, I’m telling you everything.” Rubinstein, an unstable and suicidal character (he killed himself in despair after Wagner’s death), talked about his Jewishness as if it were an affliction. By worshiping at the musical shrine of Bayreuth, he hoped to be cured of this burden. And, he assured the master, he had money too. Never one to pass up a financial opportunity, Wagner took Rubinstein in as his “house-Jew.” Actually, “slave” might be a better word; Rubinstein, bullied and mocked by Wagner and his ghastly wife, Cosima, worked tirelessly as Wagner’s personal pianist and transcriber of scores, and didn’t cost Wagner a pfennig, since he was supplied with regular remittances from his wealthy parents in Kharkov.
If Rubinstein hadn’t actually existed, Aharon Appelfeld might have invented him as a character in one of his novels. The Jewish burden is Appelfeld’s subject, and the people he writes about carry it as though it were a disease. Living in a state of constant anxiety, they suffer from a neurotic self-loathing. They also tend to be deprived of fresh air, are physically weak, with stooped shoulders, and have memories of being bullied by sturdier goyim at school. The milieu of these neurotics is the one Appelfeld grew up in. He was born near Czernowitz, in Bukovina, now in Ukraine, once a multilingual, multi-ethnic city, where educated Jews, like the Appelfelds, spoke the fastidious German of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Paul Celan, the great poet, came from Czernowitz. Joseph Schumpeter, the economist, taught at the university there.
Appelfeld writes exclusively in Hebrew. He professes to find his native tongue, German, repulsive, and thinks it “would be tragic to write in the language of the murderers.” Considering Appelfeld’s memories of surviving the horrors of Nazi persecution, this aversion is understandable. His mother was murdered by a gang of Germans, Romanians, and local Ruthenians, who set upon the Jews with pitchforks and kitchen knives. Appelfeld, just eight years old, was later separated from his father in a labor camp, from which he managed to flee into the woods, where he was at the mercy of Ukrainian peasants, who probably would have killed him had they known that he was a Jew.
But the roots of his allergy against German probably go even deeper than that. German is the language associated with the idea of Jewishness as an affliction, with the neuroses of the supposedly assimilated Teutonic Jews, the Yekkes (as Israelis call them, not in praise)—people like the woman in Appelfeld’s most famous novel, Badenheim 1939 (1980), who on the eve of her own deportation from a fictional Austrian spa town still writes letters about those dreadful Eastern European Jews, the Ostjuden, “who had taken over Badenheim and were dragging every bit of …