Under the Dawn’s Light

By Aharon Appelfeld

Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green

Schocken Books, 2011, 231 pages

Cost $11.84

This is the fourth Aharon Appelfeld novel that I read this week. The time is just before and just after 1900, long before Adolf Hitler gained power in Germany and Austria, but the climate that will arise under his regime is percolating at that time.

Blanca who is in her mid-twenties and her son Otto who is four travel to northern Austria without Blanca’s husband. The book does not reveal why she took the trip until near the end. Her name ironically and tragically probably signifies “a nobody.” The book’s title “Until the Dawn’s Light” may imply that the evil will continue until after death, when a new dawn’s light shines. She decides to write her life story.

She had been a superior student in high school, even in mathematics and Latin. Her teachers, Klein and Weiss, both Jews by birth who had converted to Christianity but did not change their names, wanted her to continue her studies for with her grads she would secure a scholarship in a prestigious university. But during her high school years Blanca became fascinated by a tall, handsome, well-liked, strong Christian boy who was failing in mathematics and Latin. Blanca tried to tutor him but the boy, Adolf, was incapable of learning. He blamed it on the two teachers who he called the Jews, even though they had converted to Christianity, and he swore revenge.

Blanca and Adolf marry after Blanca converts to Christianity. Her mother and father are not opposed, for they are non-religious secularized Jews. Blanca’s father had wanted to convert as a youngster, but his mother made him promise not to do so. He still feels that he should have converted for his friends who did so had good jobs and were successful, but he is not. Blanca’s mother was not stable and spent time in a sanitarium. But Blanca’s grandmother was furious and whenever she saw Blanca, she screamed at her.

While Adolf seemed to be considerate before marriage, he soon showed himself to be very anti-Semitic, an over-indulger in alcohol, and a wife-beater who wanted, he said, to beat the Jewishness out of her. “’You’re not a woman,’” he would say. ‘You’re a monster. You’re just like your father, like your grandma,’”

This is an outline of the main plot, the depiction of Jewish lives in Germany and Austria in decades before 1900 and shortly thereafter, about the need Jews felt to convert to Christianity to be able to live a comfortable life. “They’re sure that if they convert to Christianity, their neighbors will embrace them and take them to their hearts. They’re wrong. They’re simply wrong.” The novel contains much more details. It is a well-written tale and tragic history.