Thursday, January 11, 2018

Farewell to Appelfeld

Contextualization is the tool many, even perhaps most, authors who write about the Shoah use to make their stories believable. The first truly great novel rooted in the Shoah, André Schwarz Bart’s The Last of the Just, sought to set the Shoah into the context of Jewish history itself. Vasily Grossman’s monumental book, Life and Fate, which covers a huge amount of territory including both Stalingrad and the fate of the Jews of German-occupied Russia and Ukraine, sets the horror into the context of the Red Army’s war against the Soviet Union’s German invaders. Even works like Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance sought to explain the Holocaust by attempting to see it as part of the larger context of the Second World War itself. I could mention a dozen other books in this vein as well, all works that sought to make fathomable something by its nature essentially unfathomable by setting it in a larger frame and then by attempting to provide some of the other pieces of the puzzle that fit into that frame, somewhat in the same way that you can take a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t look like anything at all and grant it meaning by providing the other puzzle pieces that together with it create an image you actually can recognize easily.

But the work of Aharon Appelfeld, who died last week at the age of eighty-five, took the precise opposite tack and attempted to explain the Shoah through the exquisite contemplation, not of the whole, but of single ones of its pieces…and the tinier the piece the better. Such a minimalist approach risks being treated dismissively by people trained from childhood to seek understanding through the studied contemplation of “the big picture,” by people who want to explain any smaller thing in terms of whatever larger thing it is a part of.  But such people would be wrong: Appelfeld, in his forty-odd novels, was not just successful in laying the foundation for a truly meaningful sense of what the Shoah “meant,” but remarkably so. Of all his books, only one, The Ice Mine, is actually set in a Nazi camp. The rest are set either before, during, or after the Shoah…but none attempts to describe anything like the big picture and all focus instead on the experiences of single families or, in more instances than not, of single children facing a world that they cannot even begin slightly to fathom. And that child, of course, is Appelfeld himself, whose entirely literary oeuvre he himself once characterized as a life-long effort to understand his own story.

The stories he tells are both amazing (because they feature children surviving more or less totally on their own against unimaginable odds) and familiar (because so many pieces of so many of his stories will remind readers of incidents in the lives of survivors they know personally). But even readers unaccustomed to the kind of spare prose that says everything by saying almost nothing will find his books to be moving comments not solely on the Jewish experience during the Second World War, but on life itself, on what it means to be alive at all. 

Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, today part of Ukraine. When the fascists invaded in 1941, his mother was murdered in front of his eyes, and he and his father were deported to a camp from which he somehow managed to escape almost immediately upon arrival despite the fact that he was all of eight years old in 1941. And he survived that way too, somehow managing to survive in the forest for three long years. (This part of his story is told through a child’s eyes in one of his last works, the children’s book Adam and Thomas which I just finished reading last week.) Eventually, he was “rescued” by some partisans who handed him over to the Red Army, where—because eleven-year-olds could not actually serve as soldiers—he was sent to the kitchen to work as one of his unit’s cooks. And then, when the war finally ended, Appelfeld—still not bar-mitzvah age—was interned on his own in a displaced persons camp in Italy. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine, where he learned—but only eventually—that his father too had somehow survived. That reunion, between a fifteen-year-old who had basically raised himself and a father whom he assumed had been murdered years earlier, was the defining moment in Appelfeld’s life, albeit one not recounted in any of his books, not even in his 2003 autobiography, The Story of a Life.

As noted, his books are almost all—at least in part—about children. And so, when read as a complete oeuvre—and I believe that I have now read all of Appelfeld’s books either in Hebrew or in English—the experience is like peering through some sort of semi-opaque scrim at a world that looks like our own but in which no one seems to realize that its appurtenances are made of papier-mâché that is destined by its very nature to dissolve once it starts raining in earnest…and that its people are merely tethered to the world rather than truly anchored in it.

We read about parents telling their children—and this scene repeats over and over and over—telling them that they’re going to have to hide in the woods (or in an attic or in a brothel or in a farmer’s barn somewhere) until someone comes to retrieve them, which almost never actually happens, and softening the blow of separation with a slew of hopeful promises. The war will soon be over. The deportations will end. The neighbors will surely protect us. The war just a passing disturbance that has nothing really to do with us at all, a nightmare we will soon barely be able to remember. These same promises reverberate through every book.

I wrote several years ago about Blooms of Darkness, the novel that won him the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, one of the U.K.’s most prestigious literary prizes, and the book that I think almost more than any says the most about the Shoah by saying so little. The story of a little boy stashed by his panicked parents in a local brothel that they clearly do not realize is patronized almost exclusively by German soldiers, the book describes how the givens of the world can alter in a twinkling as an entire civilization vanishes in the mist and a child wakes up suddenly to find himself living in an entirely different universe. The book itself is harrowing, and in a million different ways. But the end of the book really comes as close as anything I’ve read to creating a context for understanding the Shoah, and that’s what I thought I’d write about today as a way of saying farewell to one of the truly great authors of our day.

At the end of the book, the Germans withdraw and the brothel closes. For a moment, we think that the danger has passed, but now a new horror presents itself: Mariana, the prostitute, now risks being condemned by her countrymen as a traitor, as someone who spent the years of the occupation giving comfort to the enemy. They flee into the forest together, but Mariana is quickly found and arrested. Hugo, like his creator, is now all alone in the forest. He sees no way out, no solution. And so he voluntarily leaves the forest and finds his way to the jail in which his protector is being kept. And there he waits…for something. For justice. For Mariana. For his mother. For someone to watch over him. But nothing at all happens. Days come and go. He eats at a local soup kitchen, then returns to his post outside the jail lest he be absent when she exits the prison gates.

Eventually, the scales fall from his eyes and he realizes—to his amazement—that he is in his own city, in the city in which he was raised. It’s just a provincial city, not too big…and he somehow figures out in which direction lies the neighborhood in which his parents house stood and presumably still stands. And so he leaves the jail, leaves Mariana (she has already been executed, but he doesn’t know that), leaves the fragile platform life has offered him to stand on for as long as he can.

He begins to walk home. The city’s residents ignore him. He has no real way to know if he is going in the right direction. Somehow he perseveres, walking slowly and purposefully. But when he gets to his own street…everything is different. The shops are still where he recalled them being, but they all have different names. The synagogue has vanished. The Jewish people have all been replaced by Gentiles. He peers through the window of his own home and sees a different family with different children sitting down to dinner at his parent’s dining room table. He cannot fathom what has happened, cannot explain it, can only wait for his parents to return. And then, when he eventually tires of waiting, he turns his back on the past and walks away.

I haven’t even begun to do the passage justice. But that sense that everything is different, that nothing will ever be the same, that the world is illusory at best and malign and dangerous at worst, that the only safety rests within the confines of the human heart where remembering and forgetting can coalesce into some version of hope in the future—that is the core idea of which the book itself reads like so much extended midrash.

Appelfeld himself ended up in a D.P. camp in Italy, then found a new life in Israel. He ended up reasonably well—his found his father, and he also found the courage to marry, to become a father of three, to thrive in Israel, and to live and work productively into old age. But he remains—to myself and to many—the symbol not of the accomplished author and family man, but of the little boy in the forest attempting to fathom the unfathomable…and somehow to remain safe in the domain of wild beasts. May Aharon Appelfeld rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing for us all.

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