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Purveyor of fragmented Holocaust images

David Herman looks at the brilliant career of Aharon Appelfeld

    Aharon Appelfeld
    Aharon Appelfeld (Photo: Getty Images)

    ‘Among us, the writer-survivors,” wrote Primo Levi, “Appelfeld’s voice has a unique, un-mistakable tone… I am struck with awe and admiration.”

    Aharon Appelfeld, who died last week aged 85, was one of the great Israeli writers. His life was dominated by the terrible events of his childhood; born in Czernowitz in Bukovina in 1932, he spent much of the war in hiding, came to Palestine in 1946 and spent the rest of his life in Israel, where he wrote more than 20 works.

    His breakthrough came in 1978, when he published two acclaimed novels, Badenheim 1939 and The Age of Wonders. Badenheim 1939 is Appelfeld’s masterpiece, one of the great Holocaust novels. It describes an Austrian resort town on the eve of the Second World War as a group of middle-class Jews arrive for their holidays. Slowly, a sense of foreboding builds. The writing is understated and Appelfeld deals with the Holocaust indirectly.

    The Age of Wonders is also set in an Austrian town before the Second World War. The story is told by Bruno, the 13-year-old son of a Jewish writer, whose spare account describes the onset of disaster. Thirty years later, he returns from Jerusalem to the Austrian town of his childhood. There are no longer any Jews and Bruno is forced to encounter a profound sense of loss.

    In 2004, Appelfeld published his memoir, The Story of a Life, told without sentimentality or sensationalism. One unforgettable passage describes a group of blind children, “dressed in their Sabbath best”, being marched from the Institute for the Blind to the local railway station to be deported to the camps, stopping at various points to sing songs by Schubert and Bach, and Yiddish and folk songs. When they reach the station, the Ukrainian guards “immediately set upon the children with their clubs… At the railway station, they still managed to sing their anthem in its entirety before being pushed into the cattle cars.”

    The writing throughout is spare and quiet. A recurring word is “observer” — Appelfeld watches and writes down what he remembers. He was always suspicious of fluency and said that his early writing “was more about holding back than about flowing.”

    Appelfeld mistrusted people who talked too readily about the Holocaust, or those who wrote too easily.

    Memory is hard, and returned in his work as fragmented images, “a dark figure, a hand that had been charred, a shoe of which nothing was left but shreds.”

    David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

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