A lingering silence
Israel’s Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon once told Aharon Appelfeld that the younger writer had enough material in his life for three writers. Writing in Hebrew, Appelfeld has achieved international renown through novels like “Badenheim 1939" and “The Iron Tracks.” In his first work to be labeled autobiography, traces of his fictional characters indeed come to light. But to read the memoir as a set of footnotes to his novels is to miss its pleasures and challenges. This is as much the history of his memory as the story of his life. In 30 brief chapters, he offers fragments, unhinged in time, a trail that’s more dream sequence than timeline.
For Appelfeld, memory and imagination “sometimes dwell together.” Although he has written more than 20 works of fiction about the war years and their aftermath, Appelfeld, now in his 70s, writes that sometimes “it seems as though I haven’t yet begun to describe them.” When war broke out in 1939, the author was 7 and living with his family in Czernowitz, Bukovina. Although he didn’t witness the Nazis’ murder of his mother, he heard her solitary scream. He and his father were transferred to a ghetto and then dispatched on a long forced march to a labor camp. In the autumn of 1942, only the younger Appelfeld escaped; he spent the war years on his own, living in the forest, sometimes venturing out and posing -- with astonishing instincts for survival -- as a gentile to get food and shelter. After the war, he made his way to Italy and then, in 1946, to Palestine.
Appelfeld’s clearest memories are those from before the war, a time that seems idyllic. Although his grandparents were religious Jews, his parents were secular; theirs was a comfortable, urban life, and Appelfeld, an only child, was surrounded by tenderness. He spent summers visiting his grandparents in their village in the Carpathian Mountains. Once, while basking in the pleasures of fresh strawberries and cream in the afternoon sun, he became inconsolably sad. Somehow he knew that summer would be the last in the village, that “henceforth the light will be dimmed and darkness will seal the windows.” Even before he was uprooted, he was yearning for this landscape.
Joseph Brodsky has written, “If there is any substitute for love, it’s memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy.” From early childhood, Appelfeld was a vigilant observer of life; he enjoyed losing himself in his contemplations. When he was hiding among the trees, his passion for observation would allow him to forget about hunger and fear, looking at something in front of him, or looking back into his personal archive of home. During the war, he always thought his parents would show up one day to save him.
As a memoirist, Appelfeld’s skill is in the observing; he remembers certain details and the sensations they evoke more than facts. He doesn’t know the names of the towns he passed through, or the dates. He doesn’t describe life in the labor camp, preferring to leave that part of his story in shadow, as he does in his fiction. “Over the years I tried, on more than one occasion, to go back and touch the planks on which we slept in the camp, and to taste the watery soup that was doled out there,” Appelfeld writes. “But all this effort yielded no more than jumbled phrases, incorrect words, disjointed rhythm, weak or exaggerated characters. Profound experience, I’ve already learned, is easily distorted. This time, too, I won’t attempt to put my hand into this fire.”
For some months, Appelfeld found refuge from the forest with a prostitute named Maria, doing chores for her. He never names her as a prostitute, but innocently describes her nightly routines as the child saw them. Maria, who didn’t know he was Jewish, was sometimes kind and joyful, otherwise dark. But his stay with her had a rare pleasantness, interrupted when her hut was blown apart in a storm and she chased him away.
For much of the war, Appelfeld lived in silence, listening carefully but speaking little: “The hunger for bread, the thirst for water, the fear of death -- all these make words superfluous.” In fact, after the war, many people assumed that he was mute. When he arrived by ship in Haifa, Appelfeld’s only formal education had been the first grade, although he spoke several languages. He had to learn Hebrew, and he had to learn how to live. He found comfort in agricultural work, and, slowly, he grew close to the earth and to the Hebrew language and books. Israel was fertile ground for forgetting -- the culture was forward-looking, not interested in survivors’ stories. His army years led him back to his earlier life, and he learned how the world he had left behind was alive within him.
This memoir is also the story of Appelfeld’s writing life. The first words that he wrote were “a kind of desperate cry to find the silence that had enfolded” him during the war. “A sixth sense told me that my soul was enveloped in this same silence, and that if I managed to revive it, perhaps the right words would come,” he writes. He knew that his style would not be to bear witness but to create a different kind of expression, an interior narrative of images he had absorbed.
Attending Hebrew University in the 1950s, Appelfeld studied with, among others, the scholars Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber. From Agnon, he learned that he could carry the town of his birth with him anywhere, that one’s “birthplace is not a matter of fixed geography.” When his first book, “Smoke,” was published, critics were full of praise. “Appelfeld doesn’t write on the Holocaust but about its margins,” one wrote.
Among his generation of leading Israeli writers, Appelfeld stands alone in writing not about Israel but about Europe. Eudora Welty wrote that every writer has a heart’s field, and for Appelfeld it’s the villages and forests that were the grounds of World War II, the landscape of his murdered relatives. The memoir is spare yet illuminating, filled with whispers of what has been erased, punctuated with silence. *