By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated from Hebrew by Aloma Halter
Schocken Books, 2009, 231 pages
Aharon Appelfeld – born in 1932 and awarded the Israel Prize for literature in 1983 as well as other international awards – is an acclaimed Israeli novelist. One could read his novels and enjoy them without delving into their depth. Or, as I do, understand them as allegories that sometimes, as in this volume, critique human and divine behavior.
Laish is a fifteen year old orphan boy when the story starts. He tells us that his name may have come from Hungary and translates as “lion,” but he lacks the strength and courage of a lion; he is more of a spectator of life. He tells us what he sees among the many people, young and old, who are part of the wagon-train of Jews wandering across Europe in the late nineteenth century seeking to escape the diseases and attacks by non-Jews, seeking to travel to the safety of the ancestral home, Israel. “Don’t worry,” they would say, “in the land of Israel everything will be set to rights.” But in the camp, the opposite prevails. “Here, everyone’s a thief. Even in the summer, people sleep in their coats. If you have a package, you tie it to your body, this is no guarantee.”
This is a slight exaggeration, just slight. There are three kinds of men in the caravan. There are the “old men,” not many of them, and they pretty much stay by themselves. Others come to them for blessings which they feel sure will work but, of course, never do. The old men lead the daily prayer services that few younger men attend. “One of the old men had been abandoned because he hadn’t been able to control his bodily functions and had shamed the camp.” There was once a holy old man who advised the Jews to take the trip and set some rules, but he died. “Had it not been for the Holy Man’s directive” there would have been much more chaos in the camp.
In stark contrast to these few men are the traders and the caravan drivers. As the caravan crosses Europe, the traders take advantage of every opportunity to unscrupulously engage in business. They are generally successful. However, their insistence on stopping from time to time or deviating to another more lucrative location stalls the caravan advance. Then there are the wagon drivers, strong men without whom the wagon train would not move. They are mostly men who spent years in jail for thievery and murder. “Ever since the convoy had set out, we had been plagued by these men.” When the wagons came near any town they “frittered away their money in the taverns every night.” Religion was too much for them. The women and children are mostly passive during the trip, although the women cook food.
Appelfeld describes many men and women in the caravan. There is, for example, Ephraim who snitched on fellow Jews in the concentration camp. At one point, he says, “Were it not for the nightmares that tortured me in the dark hours, I would never have left my town. Famous rabbis helped me sleep a bit, but it was not enough. What could I do?” There is Old Avraham, Laish’s teacher during the caravan trip, who begs the forgiveness of Ephraim who had been brutally whipped for his snitching by the wagon drivers. Old Avraham asked for forgiveness although he was not involved in the attack and did not try to stop it. There was Sruel who loved animals and animals loved him; each night a falcon would fly to him and sit on his shoulder.
Then there were people who escaped, who left the caravan,
Appelfeld may have composed this story as an allegory critiquing the human behavior – their failure to plan, their reliance on holy men and prayer. People plan sometimes unattainable goals or start to attain their goals improperly. They form clicks or isolate themselves because of their concepts about religion and thereby fail to gain the help from others that would have solved their problems and helped them attain their goal. It is certainly good for people to have goals but the goals of most people are fuzzy, amorphous, indefinable, and therefore unachievable. Will the caravan people reach Israel? Certainly, not all of them. But will some of them reach their goal?