Unto the Soul

By Aharon Appelfeld

Translated from Hebrew by J. M. Green

Schocken Books, 1994, 211 pages

Cost $12.64


The Guardian of London considered Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld – born in 1932 and awarded the Israel Prize for literature in 1983 as well as other international awards – “one of the greatest writers of the age.” His 1994 brooding novel “Unto the Soul” is reported by the Washington Post to be “Neither dark nor light, its melancholy sweetened by the author’s purpose (,it) lingers like an intimate memory.” One could read it and enjoy it without delving into its depth. Or, as I do, understand it as an allegory, a stunning critique of the passive religion of the masses.

A brother and sister, Gad and Amalia, in an east European country at the onset of the twentieth century, are persuaded by their aged uncle to assume his job: leave the community, ascend the mountain, live there isolated from others, and guard the Jewish graveyard of the martyrs and keep it in repairs. The martyrs are those Jews who had been killed by the epidemic of typhus still raging in the village below and by pogroms, unrelenting murders of Jews by non-Jewish peasants with whom the Jews live.

The graveyard is segregated. There is a row of males, then a row of children, then one of females. Jewish men, women, and children from the village below ascend the mountain during the summer when the road is empty of snow, and on the holidays. They are called “pilgrims.” They lie on the graves, cry, pray, and beg the dead to intercede for them and save them from the typhus, heal the sick and bring them peace. Sometimes old men come who recite sermons on a Bible interpretation.

Gad and Amalia need the pilgrims to give them money as they enter the “holy ground,” even pennies, but they rarely do so. The siblings can’t understand their failure to give the charity, for Judaism teaches that “charity saves one from death.” The two serve on the mountain for seven years and there are years when they receive nothing. Isolated they begin a sexual relationship and Amalia is pregnant. They are embarrassed and feel they must hide the pregnancy. The tale has a kafkaish ending.

Appelfeld may have composed his story as an allegory critiquing the thinking – or lack of thinking – of most people who, rather than acting to resolve their problems, rely on superstitious supernatural aid, year after year, and fail to note that the horrors they are trying to avert, continue unabated despite their prostrations, tears, and prayers. The aged uncle who assigned the siblings the task to guard and maintain a graveyard symbolizes ancient traditions that demand retaining notions that are irrelevant to life. The visitors to the cemetery are called “pilgrims” and the dead “martyrs,” for the villagers deceive themselves by using titles that contain unwarranted auras of holiness. Unable to mature from childish reliance of parents or to be self-reliant, sick and needy people pray to dead relatives, although they are dead, and wail like children to dead “wise men.” They listen to sermons but fail to give charity to the siblings who maintain the cemetery for them. Gad and Amalia, brother and sister, symbolize the isolationist nature of these passive people; and the pregnancy, which they hide, is the embarrassing result of such seclusion. Appelfeld suffered from the holocaust and the typhus and pogroms may symbolize the Nazi atrocities and anti-Semitism.