Aharon Appelfeld “one of the best novelists”

Aharon Appelfeld, author of more than 40 books in Hebrew, winner of Israel Prize and other prizes, died last week on January 4, 2018 at age 85. The noted critic Irving Howe once wrote that he “is one of the best novelists alive.” Here is a summary of several of his tales.


To the Land of Cattails

The title of this fascinating 1987 novel is ironic. A mother and her son, she in her early thirties and he about 16 or 17, are returning to the home of her Orthodox Jewish parents after an absence of close to two decades in a carriage led by two horses. The year is 1938. They were unknowingly entering Hitler’s Germany.

She left home when she married a non-Jew, despite her parent’s warnings. He turned into a drunk and wife-beater. She assures her son that they are going to a pleasant area where flowers bloom. Their trip takes months. They encounter many experiences of anti-Semitic hatred, including the murder of a Jewish Inn Keeper. Readers may feel the urge to warn her “Don’t go!” But she is sure her longing for happiness and fulfillment is in front of her.

She is beautiful, but uneducated, knows little of Judaism, and is very fearful, although she has no idea why. While wanting to reunite with her Jewish parents, she utters defamatory remarks to her son from time to time, such as “Jews are short” and “Jews dislike pleasure,” while her disparaging remarks are equaled in number with her praise for her parents and Judaism, for she wants her son, who was raised as a non-Jew, to be Jewish. It seems clear that she has absorbed her husband’s hatred, although she left him long ago. After separating from her husband she had many affairs because of her beauty, including one with an elderly man who left her money when he died. While she looks Jewish, her son does not. As a result, peasants make insulting remarks to her during the trip, but not to her son.

She is addicted to cigarettes and coffee, but frequently warns her son not to drink like his father, who he saw only as a child, once in his life, and he promises that he will not do so. But when the two reach an Inn that is just two hours from her parent’s home, he overly indulges in beer and is intoxicated for days.

She decides to proceed alone. Readers will find what follows disturbing, but they will enjoy the book because Appelfeld is such a good writer.


The Iron Tracks

Aharon Appelfeld’s 1998 novel The Iron Tracks is an unusual tale. Some people today live on cruise ships rather than owning or renting a home and paying the expenses of the home, as well as for food and entertainment. These people recognize that it is cheaper to live on a cruise ship, such as Queen Mary II, among some 2000 transient passengers and have gourmet foods prepared for them and enjoy the many ship activities, films, and other entertainments that are included in the cost.

But Erwin is different; he lives on trains. He travels from place to place in Austria after World War II, in yearly cycles. He doesn’t carry sandwiches and bottled water onto the trains because he enjoys sitting in the club cars, eating and drinking there, and listening to the classical music in the club car. If classical music is not playing, he hands the porter a tip to switch to the music he likes. He visits Inns at the various stops, bathes, and stays for a day or two.

He meets interesting people on the train, including women with whom he has one night stands. Virtually every chapter in this book describes the unusual people he meets: Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews, people unsatisfied with life, people searching for something just like him, and anti-Semites who are not only on the train but also in the Inns. A prostitute, for example, tells him she will sleep with any man no matter how disfigured, but never with a Jew. An Inn owner welcomed Erwin each year with open arms and body. She showered him with the best comforts and foods until she discovered he was Jewish, and then was unable to even look at him.

Erwin is not educated. His grandparents were knowledgeable observant Jews. Their daughter, his mother, married unobservant Jew, a communist. Erwin’s mother wanted him to have an education but his father was against it. He felt that the schools would teach non-communist principles. Erwin’s father was a good leader of his communist group. The non-Jews in the group despised him but keep him as their leader only because of his skills. His father was seldom at home. He traveled by train from place to place teaching communism. Erwin sometimes joined him in these travels as a youngster before he entered his teens. When the Nazis come to power, the communist group tossed him out. Both his mother and father were killed by the Nazi Colonel Nachtigel.

Erwin is traveling looking for Nachtigel, seeking revenge. When he visits the various cities he also looks for Jewish memorabilia – books, menorahs, kiddush cups – not to save them but to sell them, and this is how he supports himself. Then, one day, Erwin hears that Nachtigel is renovating a house in a certain city with the intension of living there. He takes a gun and heads for the city.

Readers will enjoy this tale, the stories of the various people Erwin meets, and what happens when he encounters the aged Nachtigel.


The Conversion

Aharon Appelfeld wrote many books about life in Europe prior to the Holocaust. This is one of them.  The New York Times considered this 1998 translation from the Hebrew original the “notable book of the year.” The Los Angeles Times called it the “best fiction book of 1998.” It tells the story of Jews and non-Jews in an Austrian town two generations before the Holocaust. It focuses on Karl, a Jew with a mid-level city position who wants to rise to the next level, a position with much authority, but feels certain that he can’t do so unless he converts to Christianity.

Karl is not the only Jew in the city or even throughout Austria at that time with this problem. Many Jews realizing that they cannot be accepted in society and cannot gain positions they desire because they are Jewish, convert. The local priest is very friendly and makes it easy. But the novel shows that the conversions do not work. Converts feel guilty and many ignore fellow converts. Anti-Semitism against Jews is also directed against the new converts in the Austrian cities and towns, for the converts are still Jews in the eyes of these bigots. A Jewish physician and a Jewish lawyer do not gain patients and clients once they convert. Karl felt oppressed because he was unable to believe in the trinity. A prominent Jewish businessman who converted was highly respected by the community as long as he was considered rich and could give money and housing to the community and church.  But as soon as he went bankrupt, virtually the same day, the Viennese non-Jewish community remembered he was a Jew, insulted him, and physically abused him.

Remarkably and ironically, Karl’s late parents’ housekeeper of two decades, a non-Jewish peasant girl fourteen years Karl’s senior, continued Karl’s parent’s practices after his conversion. She lit Shabbat candles, took two candles to the synagogue in their memory before Yom Kippur, fasted on Yom Kippur, refused to buy pork, and gave in to Karl’s immoral request, which his parents would never have condoned, but it destroyed her.


The Age of Wonders

This novel relates the impressions of a pre-teen Austrian Jewish boy in an assimilated family, a family that refuses to associate with other Jews, in the year when anti-Semitism begins to rage. His father despises Jews and makes all kinds of disparaging remarks about them, even though he is Jewish. The father is a successful and popular writer whose books are rejected when Austria begins to express its anti-Semitism. His publisher stops sending him money and he becomes bankrupt. He falls apart. He blames his situation on Jews. He argues with his wife and separates from her. A priest advises him to leave Austria and go to Palestine, but he refuses, insisting that he is an Austrian and should be treated as one.

The book’s title probably refers not only to the boy’s wonder, his difficulty in understanding what is happening around him and the reactions of Austrians, both Jews and non-Jews. It probably also refers to the assimilation that the boy sees and his inability to understand why some Jews are trying to save themselves by converting to Christianity, even members of his own family.

Appelfeld does not describe the horrors of the holocaust in this novel because the focus is self-hatred, but there is a scene where the Jews are required by the Nazis to congregate in a synagogue, from where, unknown to them, they will be transported to the camps. The scene is written to reflect the same self-hatred by the assimilated Jews.

The last third of the novel tells about the return of the boy from Jerusalem to the city of his youth some 30 years later. He also had some family problems. He is searching for something that he is unable to find. The city has no Jews, but there are some people with some Jewish ancestry, and the self-hatred is continued long after the holocaust, as does anti-Semitism, even among his father’s old friends.


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