By Israel Drazin
By Aharon Appelfeld
Aharon Appelfeld, born in 1932, escaped from a Nazi concentration camp when he was nine years old and immigrated to Palestine in 1946. He 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.