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Bukovina, 2001; photograph by Josef Koudelka

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 true culture through the dirt.” True culture being, of course, German culture.

German was the culture of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, which promised, since the eighteenth century, emancipation from the narrow life in Jewish communities dominated by the rabbis. The secular achievements of several generations of Jewish thinkers, artists, and professionals, especially in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were made possible by this break with the past. The integration of Jews into Gentile society was not always as firm as many people had hoped, however. Promotion in the Prussian army and civil service was still quite restricted. Conversion to Christianity was often required to get ahead (hence, for example, the conversion of Heinrich Heine, among others). And economic crises, such as the one in 1873, were often blamed on “Jewish speculators.”

Another symptom of the burden, described by Appelfeld, is a snobbish aversion to the world left behind, everything that smelled of the shtetl life of Eastern Europe, of Yiddish instead of German. When a thoroughly assimilated gentleman in Badenheim 1939 is told that he’s on a list of Jews to be deported to Poland, he is convinced that a mistake has been made:

They drove me here on the grounds that I’m a Jew. They must have meant the Ostjuden. And I’m like you, an Austrian. My forefathers? I don’t know. Maybe, who knows? What does it matter who my forefathers were?

But it did matter, to the Nazis, and, it must be said, it matters to Appelfeld too. He told Philip Roth in an interview:

Assimilated Jews built a structure of humanistic values and looked out on the world from it. They were certain that they were no longer Jews and that what applied to “the Jews” did not apply to them. That strange assurance made them into blind or half-blind creatures. I have always loved assimilated Jews, because that was where the Jewish character, and also perhaps Jewish fate, was concentrated with the greatest force.

Perhaps Appelfeld does love them, but his description of the assimilated Jews is not an especially sympathetic one. They are pathetic, haughty, deluded people. And as Balaban, a character in The Retreat (1984), says to a fellow guest in an Austrian spa hotel, not long before they will be sent off to the east, “Illusion is the mother of all sin, and here, I’m sorry to say, everyone is party to the illusion.”


Appelfeld never says it, but a careless reader might think that these deluded snobs had it coming to them. If only they had shown more solidarity, been more honest with themselves, been better prepared, perhaps the worst could have been avoided. This view is close to what many pioneers in Israel believed just after the war. Stories of Nazi atrocities were not welcomed in those early days, and Yiddish was disdained. Becoming an Israeli Jew would cure the European sickness and wipe out a shameful past, about which the less said, the better.

The idea of Jewish sickness and robust Gentile health runs through many Appelfeld stories. This was a common perception among Eastern European Jews, and perhaps some Western Europeans too. The Gentiles “smell of the woods.” A Jewish woman in The Retreat “admires” the “primitive rawness” of a pious Christian coachman. The rude health of the primitive goy is indeed a source of sexual attraction for some of the Jewish neurotics. It brings to mind Isaac Babel’s extraordinary description of a Russian military officer, with his “giant’s body” and his long legs, “like girls sheathed to the neck in shiny riding boots.”

“The retreat,” in fact, refers to a hotel in the mountains where Jews went to be cured of their Jewishness, reformed by a regime of fresh air, hiking, horse-riding, hunting, and yogurt- eating. The trainer in this establishment would, he promised his well-paying guests, “painlessly eradicate embarrassing Jewish gestures and ugly accents. No one would have to be ashamed any more.”

There never was such a retreat, of course, although Appelfeld has spoken of the many typical Austro-Hungarian spa towns visited by his family when he was a small boy, where assimilated Jews went to get away from embarrassing Yiddishkeit only to find themselves in the company of other Jews with the same thing in mind. This, he told Philip Roth, “left a bad taste in my parents’ mouths, and no small amount of anger.”

The real sickness, then, in Appelfeld’s novels is not Jewishness per se, but the neurotic illusion of assimilation. This profoundly Zionist sentiment—“I cannot imagine myself being a Jewish writer and not being in Jerusalem”—might strike some readers, including myself, as a trifle harsh. It was not the fault of the Yekkes, after all, that their attempt to assimilate was rejected. Why can’t a man think of himself as being an Austrian, or a cosmopolitan European, regardless of who his ancestors were? Just because the Nazis said he couldn’t? Tribal solidarity is not an absolute moral imperative. Heinrich Heine didn’t think so. Karl Marx certainly didn’t. And for others, from Arthur Schnitzler to Raymond Aron, their Jewishness wasn’t a matter of primary importance. But in Appelfeld’s novels, and for many in real life, it became so because of the attempt to murder all Jews. A common catastrophe created a sense of solidarity. The Retreat ends just as the catastrophe, later known as the Holocaust, is about to begin. The end reads: “At night, of course, people were afraid. But they helped one another. If a man fell or was beaten he was not abandoned.”

Appelfeld told Roth that it took him many years “to draw close to the Jew within me.” This happened in Israel, where he learned to write in Hebrew: “If it weren’t for Hebrew, I doubt whether I would have found my way to Judaism.” It was also in Israel that he found, by sheer coincidence, his father, whom he had not seen since they were separated in the camp. He came across him at a kibbutz, and was literally lost for words. For some time, they could not speak. And in Israel, Appelfeld read Kafka, whose sense of the absurd matched his own.

The shadow of Kafka lies rather heavily over several of Appelfeld’s novels, including The Retreat and Badenheim 1939. I’m not sure the influence is always for the good. Allegorical stories can only work if they seem real, no matter how absurd or hallucinatory. You have to believe in them. Kafka’s K. is a believable character, as is Gregor Samsa. The guests in Badenheim 1939 represent an idea, but are not fully alive as characters.


Where Appelfeld does excel is in his description of moods and emotions. There is an unforgettable passage in The Age of Wonders (1981) where a distinguished Austrian writer tries to get train tickets for his family. The writer, despite having rejected his “Jewishness” in favor of his assimilated Austrian identity, has been shunned by one institution after another. His son, Bruno, watches him and feels humiliated by his father’s humiliation:

Now Father too shoved his way into the pile of people next to the ticket booth. We saw from close up how he struggled to the counter. Time and again he came close, even very close, only to be pushed back to the wall with his hand still outstretched, before diving into the whirlpool again. At last, when he was at the counter and buying the tickets, one of the people standing there called out, without looking straight at him, “I wouldn’t allow them in.” Father bent down to pick up his hat, which had fallen off in the crush, and tripped—and when he stood up again the man looked right at him and called again, “I mean you.”

Blooms of Darkness, Appelfeld’s latest book to be translated into English, has all the virtues of this excruciating realism. The story, close to his own, of a small boy left to his own devices in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, is painfully convincing. The characters are similar to the ones that populate Appelfeld’s more allegorical stories: the family of assimilated Jews, the rough and healthy goyim, the lonely child subjected to absurd persecution. But the first-person narrative brings them alive in a way that they are not always in some of the earlier novels.

To classify this story of a boy, Hugo, who survives the war by being hidden in a brothel catering to German soldiers, as a “Holocaust novel” would be a crude reduction of what Appelfeld is actually up to. One feels the lethal menace of violent persecution on every page, but the point of the novel is not to describe atrocities. Germans are heard, through walls, grunting or cursing, or sometimes even uttering sentimental words to the Ukrainian prostitutes who service them, but we never actually see them. The reader is squashed into the narrow closet with Hugo, whose survival instincts have made him hypersensitive to everything that is going on out of sight.

Hugo’s guardian angel is Mariana, one of the Ukrainian prostitutes, whose nightly degradations in the arms of her German customers never quite extinguish her zest for life. Mariana is in debt to many kindnesses bestowed on her by Hugo’s mother before the war. The family had a pharmacy, and the mother was invariably kind to the poor. And Mariana, as though to repay her, fights for the survival of the pharmacist’s son, and the boy, in return, feels attracted not just to Mariana’s maternal warmth, but to her hearty goyish sensuality.

Like all the Ukrainians in the novel, Mariana is a pious Christian. She admires the Jews, as “an intelligent people,” so why is it that “most of them don’t believe in God”? This baffles her. It is a common juxtaposition in Appelfeld’s stories: the believing Christians and the unbelieving Jewish humanists. One of his stock characters is the philandering, drunken uncle—indeed, he is among the most likable of Appelfeld’s fictional relatives. In this novel his name is Sigmund. Mariana was once one of his lovers. She often begged him to believe in God. But

he would burst out laughing, as if I’d said something foolish. …He kept saying, “How do you know? If you give me one little proof, I’ll start to believe.” “The soul,” I kept saying, “doesn’t your soul announce to you that God exists?” And what was his answer? “Even the existence of the soul needs proof.” That’s why I say, the Jews can’t live without proof.

This is perhaps a common prejudice about the Jews among Ukrainian peasants. But it is also a common prejudice about assimilated Jews, especially German Jews, held by their Eastern European brethren—the idea that they have lost their souls. The fact that this prejudice runs deep, provoked in part by German-Jewish snobbery, does not necessarily make it any more plausible than similar conceits about the uniqueness of the “Russian soul” or the “Japanese spirit.”

Appelfeld does not seem to be a religious man. But his idea of being “reborn” as a Jew through the Hebrew language has strong religious undertones. Hebrew, he said to Philip Roth, “offered me the heart of the Jewish myth, its way of thinking and its beliefs, from the days of the Bible to Agnon…the juridical language of the Talmud, and the mystical language of the Kabbala.” Language, the discovery of language, and of a personal narrative, is what lies at the heart of his novel.

Hugo, like Appelfeld himself, has barely been to school when the war breaks out. The first thing he learns about human communication is the significance of silence. In the camp with his parents, he notices that his mother won’t answer certain questions, such as: “When will the people come back home?” He notices that “everybody tries not to talk about the Actions, or about the labor brigades that were sent to unknown destinations.” But it is in the silence and the dark of his secret closet in the whorehouse, bereft of home, family, or indeed anything in the outside world, that he feels the enormity of his dislocation:

In his heart Hugo knows that what had been would never be again. The time in the ghetto and in hiding was already embossed on his flesh, and the power of the words he would use has faded. Now it isn’t words that speak to him, but silence. This is a difficult language, but as soon as one adopts it, no other language will ever be as effective.

Alone, in his closet, he has to reimagine his mother, his father, his siblings and friends. He remembers how his mother had told him not to get dragged into useless competition with others, but to “make an accounting with himself.” He realizes now what this means: “I have to immerse myself in listening and observing and to write down everything my eyes see and my ears hear. Many secrets surround me. I must write down every secret.” This is how the writer is born.

When Mariana cannot bear her life in the brothel any longer and runs off to her village, another prostitute, a cold and solemn creature named Victoria, tells Hugo that he cannot stay in his closet anymore. His presence is too dangerous. Ukrainians who hide Jews are also killed by the Germans. Hugo is terrified of leaving the brothel: “The lair called ‘the closet,’ where he has been imprisoned for about a year, now seems to him like a refuge that not only protected him but also nourished him with enchanted images.”

He is saved from fleeing into the woods by Mariana’s return to the brothel. In the end, when the Soviet troops draw near, they take to the hills together. They make a remarkable, and remarkably moving, couple, the prostitute and the young boy, now behaving as mother and son, and now (to the disgust of peasants they encounter) as lovers. Both have escaped entirely from the stereotypes of earlier Appelfeld stories. Mariana is so much more than a goy with a “smell of the woods.” She is a sad, doomed, generously imagined woman. If there is such a thing as a “soul” in fiction, she has one. And Hugo is far more than a vehicle for Jewish neuroses.

Soviet “liberation” brings fresh horrors. All the prostitutes, including Mariana, are rounded up as collaborators with the fascists and shot. Hugo, adrift once again, finds his way back to the streets he grew up in. He finds the tavern where his Uncle Sigmund used to get drunk. He finds his old school. The janitor, seeing Hugo, says: “I see the Jews are coming back.” He finds his old house, with strangers inside. The pharmacy has changed into a grocery. At nightfall, an old man asks him who he is. “My name is Hugo Mansfeld.” He asks what the boy is doing here. “I came to see our house.” The old man waves his cane: “Get out of here. I don’t want to see you again.”

There is only one place where Hugo can go now, the square where other sick and wounded survivors of mass murder have gathered to collect blankets and a bowl of soup. Some of them recognize him. He has found a place where people look out for each other, and feel a kind of kinship even with strangers. There are no more illusions here. One might say, in the terms of Appelfeld’s world, that experience has cured these people of the ills of assimilation.

Something about the atmosphere on the square reminds Hugo of his grandfather’s funeral. He was five years old then. For many nights he dreamed of the people who gathered on that occasion without saying a word. “‘Why are the people so quiet?’ he asked his mother then. ‘What is there to say?’ she replied, and said nothing more.”

This Issue

April 29, 2010