Remembering Aharon Appelfeld

Writing the Jewish Iliad in a Jerusalem cafe
TOULOUSE;FRANCE - JUNE 17:  Israelian author Aharon Appelfeld poses while visiting a book fair in Toulouse, France on the 17th of June 2006. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
TOULOUSE;FRANCE - JUNE 17: Israelian author Aharon Appelfeld poses while visiting a book fair in Toulouse, France on the 17th of June 2006. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Half a year has passed since Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel’s most important writers, passed away on January 8, 2018. He was 86 years old.

I am dedicating this blog celebrating Israeli literature and culture to his memory, not only because he was an authentic Jew and a great artist, but also one, who coincidentally, found   inspiration for his writing in Jerusalem cafes. It was there that he transformed the memories of his childhood in Bukovina under the shadow of looming cataclysm and his youth fleeing the Nazis through the forests of Central Europe, into great art, what might even be seen as a Homeric  myth of the Jewish experience of the 20th century.

“Sometimes, I feel that a coffee shop is like a port where all the gates of the imagination are open. You can sail to distant lands , connect with people that you loved, and return and start all over again,“ wrote Appelfeld in  “OD HAYOM GADOL”(IT IS YET HIGH DAY: JERUSALEM:THE MEMORY AND THE LIGHT) (Keter Publishing Co.; Yad Yitzchak Ben Zvi, 2001,) a  personal memoir  in which Aharon Appelfeld joined with his artist son, Meier Appelfeld to create  a sensitive, visually handsome work on Jerusalem.

Here  he  discusses the role Jerusalem coffee shops played in the life of a lonely immigrant survivor and aspiring writer.  He experienced the coffee shop, not as a venue for sophisticates, but as a place that immigrants could huddle with their own kind.

“I don’t remember who first brought me to Peter”s Café,” he writes. “But this I do remember. I just had to cross its threshold and I knew. that these were my lost uncles and cousins. They had hauled their languages, their clothes, even their little stores on the outskirts of their villages, and the elegant stores from the towns from which they had been uprooted. ..After seven years. in Israel, I had returned home. I was so enchanted by the cafe that in every spare moment I would run there, sit in wonderment. I understood everything that was said around these small tables. Not only the words, but the half words, the hints, the silences. Immediately, I felt that these people whose names I hardly knew-they were my real relatives…..”I wrote all my works in coffee shops in Jerusalem….From here I left and to here I returned. I have many houses, fields and rivers in the provinces of my childhood. But in order to reach them,I must have a home port.”

(All translations by Rochelle Furstenberg)

Throughout his life’s work, Appelfeld sought his home port, invoked the vision of his original home from which he was uprooted.

Aharon Appelfeld was 8 years old when the Nazis marched into the city of Czernowitz in the area of Bukovina, Roumania,(today the Ukraine). His mother was shot and he was taken with his father to a labor camp, but he managed to escape and wandered with  groups of displaced youth through  the forests of Central Europe, surviving however he could. The experience of hiding and being pursued is depicted in many of his works. But in contrast to sensationalistic works on the Shoah, Appelfeld never confronts the reader with the obscene horrors themselves. Recognizing the limitation of language to convey the horror, he avoids dealing with the Holocaust directly but evokes the atmosphere of attenuated catastrophe that hovered over the Jews at the eve of World War II. He presents images, symbolic of the death and destruction inflicted by the Nazis.  As in a musical composition, themes recur and create an echo chamber that evoke the dread of those terrible times. As the critic, the late Gershon  Shaked once wrote,” Appelfeld is not interested…in historical events. The real world serves him as a background for mythical, archetypal situations,” the universal structures of the human condition.

Time is amorphous in Appelfeld ‘s early works. Events take place either during the period before the Holocaust, serving as a harbinger of things to come, or after the Holocaust where burnt-out, catatonic survivors live in the echo of what has happened.

In his early work, “Badenheim,”’ the “gemutlich” Jewish resort not far from Vienna before World War II  suggests the enclosures  into which Jews will soon be herded. In the “Age of Wonders,” the sensitive twelve year old boy, Bruno, returns by train from a resort vacation with his mother. His father, an artist, has not joined them, as he is desperately trying to defend his artistic work from the criticism of the Nazi intelligentsia who rail against decadent Jewish art. Bruno also travels with his father by train, and each trip evokes the far more sinister trains in the not-too distant future.

In other works, Appelfeld portrays the wandering groups of Jews escaping the Nazis, echoing his own experience as a child. But here again it’s not simply a realistic depiction of what happened to him in the Shoah. It’s not history, collective or personal memory, but memory transformed into art.  The subconscious takes the form of a symbolic pilgrimage, embracing different types of refugees, believers and cynics,weak and strong Jews, ultimately examining man in extreme situations.

The novel, ‘TZILI, THE STORY OF A LIFE,” is an especially moving parable about a young girl who joins a group of Jews wandering through the forests. Tzili is a somewhat simple, perhaps even retarded child, ”who grew up neglected among the abandoned objects of the yard.” She  is left behind to tend the animals  when the family flees the Nazis. She has, though, a survival instinct. When she is mistaken to be a daughter of Maria the village whore, rather than deny it, she takes up this identity.  She’s beaten for being impure, but that is better than being mistaken for a Jew at this time. Tzili finds loving, human contact with Mark, a Jewish intellectual in his forties, and hides with him, burrowed in the ground and becomes pregnant. But he disappears and she joins a group of Jews, as the war ends, on the way to Palestine. Pregnant, soon to bear the baby, the group carries Tzili on their shoulders in an exceptionally moving scene, celebrating life and survival.

Throughout Appelfeld’s works, assimilation and conversion to Christianity, is much castigated.  It is not only to record that Jews converted in order to be accepted into Central European society, to obtain promotions and status- which, ultimately, did not help them. But also to indicate how little Jews could do to counter the evil scourge. Appelfeld indicates that  all they could do was to be authentic, to existentially affirm their being, their Jewish identity.

Aharon Appelfeld was authentic as a person and a writer. If we learn anything from the works of this wise and gentle writer it is the lesson of “Kol D’mama Daka,” the power of  “a still, small voice.”

About the Author
Rochelle Furstenberg is a journalist and literary critic who has written extensively on literary and cultural topics.
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