In his new novella Amos Oz tells a story he has told several times before, sometimes as autobiography,1 sometimes worked up into fiction. At its barest, the story is about a boy at a crossroads in his life: Is he to continue on the path of childhood, living out fantasies of violence encouraged in him by his immediate surroundings, or is he to break into the next stage of life, a stage at which he may be required to love as well as to hate, and at which questions may begin to have two sides to them?
The fact that the crossroads in the boy’s life coincides with a crossroads in the life of his nation—Panther in the Basement is set in Jerusalem in the last year of the British mandate, with war against the Arab states looming—gives the choice facing the young protagonist a political bearing (Is Israel to continue on a path of violent self-assertion or to reach an accommodation with its Arab neighbors based on give and take?), which Oz, to his credit, handles with the lightest of touches.
The fictional predecessor of Panther in the Basement, in Oz’s oeuvre, is Soumchi (1978; English translation 1980), which draws upon much the same situation: a boy, Soumchi, devoured by fantasies of violence against the British occupier; his ambition to become an Underground fighter (but also an explorer in darkest Africa); a meeting with a friendly British soldier which grows into exchanges of language lessons; accusations by other boys that by fraternizing with the enemy he has become a traitor to his people; and a first experience of falling in love, which allows him to bid farewell to his murderous dreams. So close are the similarities, in fact, that Soumchi can be seen as a sketch, marred by one or two moments of sentimentality, for the later book.
In Panther in the Basement, the name of the boy is not disclosed. He is known simply by the nickname “Proffy,” which his friends give him because of his bookish habits. The Englishman who brings so much trouble into his life is Stephen Dunlop, an army pay clerk. Dunlop comes from a clerical family; he speaks some Hebrew, but of a comically biblical variety which Nicholas de Lange, Oz’s translator, renders into sixteenth-century English. “Whither dost thou hasten?” demands Dunlop as he detains Proffy for being out of doors after the curfew. “Please, kindly sir, let me go home,” replies Proffy in his best English (“the language of the enemy,” he reminds himself sternly).
The relationship between Proffy and Sergeant Dunlop is one of the best things in the book. Dunlop, unattractive and lonely, displays an uncomplicated affection for the strange boy, which Proffy—whose own father plays sarcastic distancing games with him—returns, though he dare not admit it to himself.
The two agree to meet and exchange Hebrew for English lessons. To himself Proffy rationalizes these meetings as a cunning means for extracting military secrets from the enemy. Together they read Bible stories. In his readings Dunlop pays attention not only to the victorious heroes of Israelite history but also to weak and marginal figures—in marked contrast to the teachers to whom Proffy is exposed at his Hebrew National school. Dunlop thus becomes a moderating influence on the boy. He also takes on a mildly prophetic role. Once the British have left, he foresees, the Jews will defeat their Arab foes, after which “perhaps it [is] the Creator’s decree that [the Palestinians] should become a persecuted people, instead of the Jews.” Ruefully he quotes from Scripture: “Wonderful are the ways of the Lord: …the one he loves he chastizes, and the one he would uproot he loves.”
Their meetings, which take place over lemonade and crackers at the Orient Palace Café, are spied on by Proffy’s friends and lead to his public humiliation (graffiti reading “Proffy is a low-down traitor” appears on the walls of the apartment block where he lives) and thus to the soul-searching about patriotism and treason that is at the core of the book.
Though the voice of Proffy’s upbringing tells him that Dunlop is an outsider and an oppressor, his heart tells him that his response to the stranger is generous and good. When he subjects the Englishman to petty insults like refusing to shake hands with him, he is left with a bad taste in his mouth. Brought before a court consisting of his fellow “Underground” members, he denies betraying any secrets. “Loving the enemy, Proffy, is worse than betraying secrets,” replies Ben Hur, leader of the cell (in later life Ben Hur Tykocinski will become not a security policeman, an occupation for which he seems eminently fitted, but a property tycoon in Florida; Proffy will remain in Israel and become a writer). Only Proffy’s mother is prepared to stand by him: “Anyone who loves isn’t a traitor,” she says.
But a mother’s approval is not enough. It takes Yardena, Ben Hur’s attractive nineteen-year-old sister, to confirm Proffy on the path along which his instincts are already pointing him. Sent over one evening as his babysitter, Yardena cooks him a mouth-watering Mediterranean meal, effortlessly elicits from him all his Underground secrets, teases him for talking in the clichés of “the Voice of Fighting Zion,” and delivers some home truths, including: “Why don’t you start being a professor instead of a spy or a general?… You’re a word-child.”
Proffy does not truly hate the British, he merely wants them to admit they have made a mistake and withdraw. (“I thought of the British as Europeans, intelligent and almost enviable,” Oz writes elsewhere. “We had to teach them a lesson…and then—to conciliate them and win them over to our side.”2 ) Once this has happened, he can be a friend to Dunlop with a clear conscience, perhaps even a son of sorts.
He turns to his parents for guidance. If our enemies acknowledge they have done us wrong, he asks, should we forgive them? Yes, replies his mother—“Not forgiving is like a poison.” Yes, replies his father—but only from a position of strength. Proffy does not know whom to follow. Though his inclination is to follow his mother, the crucial problem for the boy-child—in both the autobiographical and the fictional variants of Oz’s story—is how to negotiate relations with his father, how to become his father’s son.
Without admitting they were mistaken, the British do indeed withdraw from Palestine, Dunlop the weak pretender-father among them. The Arab armies attack and are defeated; the United Nations recognizes the new State of Israel. In the middle of the night Proffy is awakened by his father, who lies down beside him in bed. In an unfamiliar state of emotion, weeping, he tells Proffy the story of
how…when he and Mother lived next door to each other as children in a small town in Poland… the ruffians who lived in the same block abused them, and beat them savagely because Jews were all rich, idle, and crafty. And how once they stripped him naked in class…in front of the girls, in front of Mother, to make fun of his circumcision…. ‘But from now on there will be a Hebrew State.’ And suddenly he hugged me, not gently but almost violently.
Never again, as long as the state of Israel exists, will the Jewish people stand defenseless before their enemies. Finding a way of reconciling this vow, virtually imposed on him by his father in this powerful scene, with the softer and sometimes traitorous urgings of the heart favored by his mother, all the while bearing in mind Sergeant Dunlop’s warning of how easily the persecuted becomes the persecutor, will be the task facing Oz’s hero as he grows up in a post-British dispensation.
The repeated reworking of the Proffy story suggests that it holds rich potential for Oz, both for self-exploration and for exploration of the psyche of Israel. Stories are a way of projecting ourselves into the future, he seems to suggest. Our lives are the actings out of the stories we chose as our own while we were still children; and likewise with nations and national myths. The notion of history as the fulfilling of prophetic myth is of course thoroughly at home in Judaic thought.
In the personage we call “Amos Oz” there is also, we should not forget, a large element of willed creation. Born Amos Klausner, son of a European-trained scholar of comparative literature, the author of the various rewritings of himself—as we learn from his own testimony—quit his father’s house shortly after his mother’s suicide, changed his last name to Oz (in Hebrew the word means power or vigor), and at the age of fourteen joined a kibbutz where, through a regime of work and study, he set about remaking himself.
As in the case of Proffy, Klausner the scholar-father with his Old World culture and ironic Diaspora mentality had wanted his son to become (Oz records) a “new Israeli: simple, blond, cleansed of Jewish neurosis, tough, gentile-looking.”3 He had sent his son to a school with strong National Religious leanings, where he was taught “to long for [the] resurrection in blood and fire” of the ancient Jewish kingdoms.
Jerusalem in the last years of the British mandate provided more than enough action to sustain this mesmerizing vision of history. “My Jerusalem childhood made me an expert in comparative fanaticism,” writes Oz. The city, one might suggest, was an unsuitable environment for a sensitive and suggestible child to grow up in. In the inner world of Amos Klausner, it was a place of romance and heroism, but also of hatred and violence. Although he does not say so directly, one ventures to guess that the break with Jerusalem allowed Oz to escape the intolerance and intransigence that have marred Israeli public life. In contrast to Jerusalem, Kibbutz Hulda, to which he retreated, stood for secularism and rationality, for the defeat of evil not by violence but by the old Zionist ideal of “labor, simple living, sharing and equality, a gradual improvement in human nature.”
Soumchi is not the sole early rehearsal of the Amos/Proffy story. Many of its elements are also to be found in the three long stories published in 1976 under the collective title The Hill of Evil Counsel. Again we meet the only son of immigrant parents in the Jerusalem of the 1940s trying to make sense of himself and his violent times. We read of his dreams of engines of destruction (rockets carrying explosives extracted from bottles of nail polish, submarines built to travel through the lava beneath the earth’s crust) that will bring about the defeat of the British in a flash; of his hero worship of Underground fighters; of the search of the family apartment by British soldiers who are overawed by all the evidence of high European culture; of fantasies of dying under torture rather than reveal Underground secrets; and the motif of the leopard lurking in the forest (or the panther hiding in the basement), an emblem of primitive power and specifically of the Hebrew state on the eve of revealing itself.
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.
March 5, 1998
For example, in Under This Blazing Light: Essays (1979); English translation by Nicholas de Lange (Cambridge University Press, 1995). ↩
Oz, Under This Blazing Light, p. 159. ↩
Interview with Eugene Goodheart, Partisan Review, Volume 49, No. 3 (1982), p. 359. ↩
The Hill of Evil Counsel: Three Stories, translated by Nicholas de Lange (Harcourt Brace, 1991), p. 150. ↩
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. ↩
Aharon Appelfeld, Beyond Despair, translated by Jeffrey M. Green (New York: Fromm International, 1994), pp. ix, 35. ↩