The great Jewish novelist struggles, beautifully, to write a memoir.

Aharon Appelfeld

In this terrifying and beautiful memoir, The Story of a Life, published in 2003, Aharon Appelfeld does more than tell his life story (although, with his elliptical style, which can be rather like a narrative form of Swiss cheese, it sometimes seems as if he does less than that, too): the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor battles history itself.

Of course, the Holocaust is everywhere these days, employed in all manner of fiction and film for purposes large and small.¹ Philip Roth puts it to original use in The Plot Against America, in part to twist the rope on what might otherwise have been the dull story of a Newark boyhood. Rather than write about the real pogroms, however, he invents his own, starring Charles Lindbergh for the bad guys and Walter Winchell for the good guys.

It is, in one critic’s estimation, a “low rent” conceit. But it neatly sidesteps all the jackbooted sanctimony that accompanies so many fictional treatments of Nazi crimes, and, more importantly, it restores to history a sense of contingency. Nothing is inevitable, Roth’s book insists. If it happened there, it might have happened here. And if it happened then, what might happen now?

Roth calls it the “terror of the unforeseen,”² and this is exactly the terror that, over five decades, has haunted his friend Appelfeld’s writing. The difference is that rather than invent history, Appelfeld has been a master at making it disappear.

Seek and you will not find many ghettoes or concentration camps in his books, except in shadow. Novels like Badenheim 1939 and The Conversion are set before the killing started, when the Jews of Europe — secular, educated, self-loathing — were busy chattering and feuding and riding the trains, oblivious as children to their doom. Appelfeld’s famously spare prose, meanwhile, seems to smudge away time by ignoring it. His stories have the feeling of a nightmare, but only his readers, and never his characters, know why.³

This artistic reticence, exquisite as it may be, has often been overwhelmed by that other looming presence: Appelfeld’s own life story. Born in the small town of Czernowitz in what is now Ukraine, he watched as his mother, grandmother, and scores of other Jews were murdered with pitchforks and kitchen knives by invading Nazis and Romanians. He and his father were herded into a ghetto and later force-marched to a labor camp. His father died there, but Appelfeld, just ten years old, escaped into the woods, living on the run for three years. In 1946, he immigrated to Palestine.

Czernowitz, 1918 (Wiki)

Despite such a compelling story, or perhaps because of it, Appelfeld has, over the years, avoided writing about himself. “The things that happened to me in my life have already happened,” he explained to Roth in a 1988 interview, “they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the creative process.”⁴

Still, as Appelfeld confessed in a rare autobiographical essay that appeared in the New Yorker in 1998, “the village lay within me.” So, with an Israeli television crew in tow, he reluctantly returned and confronted local residents with questions about the location of the mass grave where his mother is buried. At first, they feigned ignorance. Then, in a flash of guilt and frustration, they relented and pointed in its direction.

“It seemed that, even though no Jews remained (in Czernowitz), their spirits wandered about everywhere, and must be appeased,” Appelfeld wrote.

And the villagers were not alone. Appelfeld, too, needed to appease those spirits. A year after his New Yorker essay, The Story of a Life was published in Israel. Now, five years later, it has finally been translated from its original Hebrew into English.

It is a typically elliptical rendering of his life. This is not the breathless adventure story suggested by the book’s dust-jacket copy, where overwrought phrases like “extraordinary survival and rebirth” impose a narrative arc that doesn’t exist. Instead, Appelfeld provides a series of wonderfully written and compelling vignettes interspersed with meditations on the difficulty of remembering. He gives us a boyhood home where there is “more quiet than talking,” and he gives us the camp not at all. (There is a camp, and it is gruesome, but is it Appelfeld’s? He doesn’t say.) There are also a few heartbreaking glimpses of the ghetto, where, he tells us, “children and madmen were friends.”

Appelfeld vividly writes about the dangers and difficulties of being a postwar refugee, and about the trauma of losing German — his mother tongue in a literal sense, its sound painfully reminding him of own mother — to Hebrew. There are excerpts from his diaries, as well as a recounting of his Israeli army years and his start as a writer.

Only a little more than a page is devoted to the two-month-long march from the ghetto to the Nazi camp. But what a page.

While the sky is still dark, the soldiers wake up the convoy with whippings and shootings. Father grabs my hand and pulls me up. The mud is deep, and I cannot feel any solid ground beneath it. I’m still drowsy from sleep, and my fear is dulled. “It hurts me!” I call out. Father hears my cry and responds instantly, “Make it easier for me, make it easier.”

I’ve heard those words often. After them come a dreadful collapse and the futile attempts to save a child who has drowned. Not only children drown in the mud; even tall people sink into it, fall to their knees, and drown. Spring is melting the snows, and with every passing day the mud gets deeper. Father opens his knapsack and tosses some of the clothes into the mud. Now his hand holds mine with great strength. At night he rubs my arms and legs and wipes them with the lining of his coat, and for a moment it seems to me that not only my father is with me, but also my mother, whom I loved so much.

From this memoir, however, you won’t learn that two hundred Jews, including Appelfeld and his father, began that march, while only thirty survived. He is interested not in facts but in memories. “I’ve already written more than twenty books about those years,” he writes, “but sometimes it seems as though I haven’t yet begun to describe them.”

The problem, he suggests over and over again, has to do with language. How many writers, and especially writers as prolific as Appelfeld, will admit suspicion of any “fluent stream of words”? “I prefer stuttering,” he writes, “for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet, the effort to purge impurities from the words, the desire to offer something from inside you. Smooth, fluent sentences leave me with a feeling of uncleanness, of order that hides emptiness.”⁵

His memories, he explains, are stored not in language, but in his body.

I don’t remember entering the forest, but I do remember the moment when I stood before a tree laden with red apples. I was so astonished that I took a few steps back. More than my conscious mind does, my body seems to remember those steps backward. If ever I make a wrong movement, or unexpectedly stumble backward, I see the tree with the red apples. It had been two days since any food had passed my lips, and here was a tree full of apples. I could have put out my hand and picked them, but I just stood in wonderment, and the longer I stood there, the deeper the silence that took root in me.

Like the dreams that are his novels, there is often little to moor these vignettes in time. And, unlike in his New Yorker essay, he almost entirely ignores important episodes like his mother’s death. “I didn’t see her die, but I did hear her one and only scream,” he writes, leaving it at that. The anticlimax is devastating.

“I do not pretend to be a messenger, a chronicler of the war, or a know-it-all,” Appelfeld says, arguing that, for him anyway, history is no more than fodder for literature. “Literature is an enduring present — not in a journalistic sense, but as an attempt to bring time into an ongoing present.”⁶

An early reviewer of The Story of a Life complains that some of its “literary stuff gets tedious; it’s the memories through the eyes of a child that are the drama here.” They’re not the drama, though. Not really. The drama comes from witnessing an old man desperately (his word) confronting the demons of his life and of history. He feints. He retreats. He blurs. He is at once candid and frustratingly evasive. Writing is his calling, but time and again he disparages words in favor of silence. “In the ghetto and in the camp,” he says, “only people who had lost their minds talked, explained, or tried to persuade. Those who were sane didn’t speak.”

And those who did speak were often confused. The mentally ill, the ones released from their institutions and into the ghetto to play with the children, wore looks on their faces, Appelfeld recalls, that seemed to say, “All these years you laughed at us for mixing things up, confusing things, confusing time; we weren’t precise, we called places and things by strange names. But now it’s clear that we were right.”

About what?

About how unbelievable the world really is. That’s the word that Appelfeld finally lands on, as he tells his story to a friend’s son.

“And so it was, unbelievable,” he writes.⁷ “Whenever you speak about those days, you are gripped by a sense of how unbelievable it all is. You relate it, but you don’t believe that this thing actually happened to you. This is one of the most shameful feelings that I know.”

A version of this review originally appeared in January Magazine in 2004.

¹ In his essay “Resistance to the Holocaust,” Phillip Lopate, a vigilant foe of cliché, laments that in the movies, at least,

the Nazi terror has ossified into a stale genre, a ritualized parade of costumes and sentimental conventions, utterly lacking in the authentic texture of personally observed detail. Now we have the Third Reich as dress-up: all those red flags with swastikas, those jeeps and jackboots suddenly flashing in key-lit night scenes, the tinkle of broken glass — accoutrements that seem considerably less menacing in Technicolor, by the way, than they used to in black and white. We have endless variations of the Cabaret plot, as characters flounder in frivolous, “decadent” sexual confusion before the evil Nazis announce themselves at midpoint and restore order and narrative suspense in one blow. The Gestapo represents the principle of Fate rescuing the story from its aimlessness — a screenwriter’s best friend. The Jewish protagonists are pulled, at first unknowingly, into that funnel of history, then gradually learn that there is something larger than their personal discontents. Meanwhile, the Christian characters sort themselves into betrayers and noble selfless neighbors, thanks to the litmus test of the Holocaust plot; and the audience readies itself for that last purgative scene, the lineup before the trains …

One imagines that Lopate groaned during Schindler’s List.

Still, the fact that representations of the Holocaust can become cliché just goes to show how familiar our culture is with this event. It was not always thus. In The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000), Norman G. Finkelstein points out that polls “show that many more Americans can identify The Holocaust than Pearl Harbor or the atomic bombing of Japan. Until fairly recently, however, the Nazi holocaust barely figured in American life.” (Finkelstein capitalizes the definite article as a way of distinguishing the event as represented by contemporary culture from its historical reality independent of those representations.)

Finkelstein argues that this change came just after Six Days War in June 1967, and coincides with the growing power of Jewish-Israeli interests in the United States. Others argue that Holocaust survivors repressed their memories of the camps, and that it took time for the full horror to be remembered and understood.

The upshot of the Holocaust’s cultural cache has been its marketability.

In Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler, How History is Bought, Packaged and Sold (1999), Tim Cole writes: “At the end of the twentieth century, the Holocaust is being bought and sold. $168 million was donated to pay for the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on a plot of Federal Land in Washington, D.C. Millions of dollars more have financed memorial projects throughout the United States, ranging from the installation of Holocaust memorials to the establishing of University chairs in Holocaust Studies. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie Schindler’s List netted over $221 million at foreign box offices and seven Academy Awards. In short, ‘Shoah business’ is big business.”

The Holocaust, a four-part television miniseries, 1978 (Wiki)

² At the end of an essay written for the New York Times Book Review (Sept. 19, 2004), Roth wrote:

And now Aristophanes, who surely must be God, has given us George W. Bush, a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one, and who has merely reaffirmed for me the maxim that informed the writing of all these books and that makes our lives as Americans as precarious as anyone else’s: all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy. We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history. May I conclude with a quotation from my book? “Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”

The critical responses to Roth’s book (ranging from Clive James’s measured piece in the Atlantic to Stanley Crouch’s outburst in Salon) have been fascinating precisely because of this simple but controversial statement: History is not inevitable. James W. Loewen’s 1994 critique of how history is taught in high school, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, argues that history is, by necessity, a meticulously constructed set of theories about what happened and why, theories influenced by the politics of the day, our cultural biases, etc. This is what makes it interesting. We can argue about this stuff. It matters. It’s only when we treat history as a set of inevitable, immutable facts that it becomes boring and useless. Books like The Plot Against America remind us of this fact. But Loewen also argues that the present should be used to illuminate the past just as the past should be used to illuminate the present. History should be useful, else why study it? I agree, and for that reason, I find Roth’s objections to using his book as commentary on present-day America disingenuous. Why fiddle with history at all if not to illuminate your own day?

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that such an approach to history — one that doesn’t take for granted accepted interpretations — can lead to revisionism along the lines of Holocaust denial. We can fail in the other direction, too. Phillip Lopate makes this observation in “Resistance to the Holocaust”:

I am trying to put my finger on a problem regarding empathy. A Jewish educator recently wrote that we must find a way to make our young people “feel more anguishingly the memory of the dead.” But the effort to project oneself into the Holocaust, to “undergo” for a few minutes what others have suffered in the transport trains and the camps, to take that anguish into oneself, seems — except in rare cases — foredoomed. That way generally lies tourism and self-pity. It is hard enough in psychoanalysis to retrieve affectively one’s own past, one’s actual memories; to expect to relive with emotion invented memories seems overly demanding. Or gimmicky: like those black history courses that made the students crawl along the floor “chained” to each other to give them an existential feel for conditions in the hold of a slave ship.

Lopate’s point is, I think, taken to heart by Appelfeld, who argues that he bears no responsibility for writing about the camps when he barely experienced them. On the other hand, what exactly is a novelist except someone who “relive(s) with emotion invented memories”?

³ Critic Inga Clendinnen, in Reading the Holocaust (1999), has a less enthusiastic view of Appelfeld’s approach than I do. She writes: “The horrors of Aharon Appelfeld’s laconic novels are always extratextual, or at the least offstage … Appelfeld’s technique is superbly effective in rousing our imagination’s sympathies, but essentially it still draws on existing capital. However much it may enlighten us as to the condition of the victims in the process of becoming victims, it does not challenge and expand imagination with a representation of the Holocaust in process.”

I would ask Clendinnen why she feels that Appelfeld has an obligation to represent the Holocaust in process. From Phillip Lopate’s perspective, representations of the Holocaust in process — jackbooted Nazis, the trains, the camps — have grown stale. They depend on an extreme form of violence that no longer shocks us, and on rather simple ideas of good versus evil. (Clendinnen’s own book, in fact, seems to challenge these ideas.) They, too, draw on existing capital. And anyway, Appelfeld’s own experience of all of this is limited to the extent that he was just a young boy at the time.

Rather, Appelfeld expands our notion of what “the Holocaust in process” means. Perhaps it can mean more than just life in the camps. Perhaps it is also life before the camps, when European Jews had a far from simple relationship with their own faith. In his novel The Conversion, Appelfeld shows us a pre-Holocaust Jew in Vienna who attempts to flee his religious and cultural heritage in order to advance his career. But baptism won’t save him from anti-Semitism (and, by extension, the Nazis); it didn’t even save him from his own spiritual restlessness. By the end of the book he is alienated from two faiths, instead of just one. There is no harm in drawing on existing capital to see the irony in the fact that suffering on the magnitude of the Holocaust has brought about a new kind of Jewish self-awareness and self-respect. In this way, one could say that Appelfeld’s books also cast their shadow on life after the camps.

Appelfeld, by the way, responds to detractors like Clendinnen in The Story of a Life. People like her want history, he writes. They want the ugly, graphic details of the Holocaust. They want the facts.

“Had the proponents of ‘the facts’ been willing to listen to me,” he says, “I would have reminded them that I was only seven at the outbreak of World War II. The war was etched inside my body, but not in my memory. In my writing I wasn’t imagining but drawing out, from the very depths of my being, the feelings and impressions I had absorbed because of my lack of awareness. I do realize that, even had I known how to articulate these it couldn’t have helped. At that time, people wanted only facts, detailed and accurate facts, as if these facts had the power to reveal all secrets.”

Appelfeld seems to have a different, less dismissive attitude toward his memories when he writes, in the preface to The Story of a Life: “These are the regions of my life that have been packed together in memory, and they are alive and pulsating. Much has been lost and much corroded by oblivion. At first it seemed that very little remained, and yet, when I laid one piece alongside another, I saw that not only have they been made whole by the years, but they have even achieved some level of meaning.”

After reading this review of The Story of a Life, a friend loaned me Jorge Semprun’s memoir, Literature or Life (1997). Semprun, a young Spaniard, fought against Franco before fleeing to France and joining the Resistance. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and sent to Buchenwald. Literature or Life, written late in Semprun’s life, is a wonderful book (his story is often horrific, but he tells it with elegance and even a sense of humor), and one that tackles many of the same aesthetic problems as Appelfeld’s memoir. For instance, how do you write about so horrible an experience?

Jorge Semprun

Semprun depicts recently liberated inmates discussing that very dilemma.

“I imagine there’ll be a flood of accounts,” he continues. “Their value will depend on the worth of the witness, his insight, his judgment … And then there will be documents … Later, historians will collect, classify, analyze this material, drawing on it for scholarly works … Everything will be said, put on record … Everything in these books will be true … except that they won’t contain the essential truth, which no historical reconstruction will ever be able to grasp, no matter how thorough and all-inclusive it may be.”

The others look at him, nodding, apparently reassured to see that one of us can formulate the problems so clearly.

“The other kind of understanding, the essential truth of the experience, cannot be imparted … Or should I say, it can be imparted only through literary writing.”

One of the great ironies of Appelfeld as a writer is that, even after twenty-plus novels, he seems to be nowhere near convinced that this is true. “Words are powerless when confronted by catastrophe,” he writes, “they’re pitiable, wretched, and easily distorted. Even ancient prayers are powerless in the face of disaster.” And yet: “The really huge catastrophes are the ones that we tend to surround with words so as to protect ourselves from them.” (Art Spiegelman wrote something similar in In the Shadow of No Towers.)

In fact, Appelfeld seems to suggest in The Story of a Life that it isn’t his obligation to even try to reach whatever essential truth lies at the heart of the Holocaust. That job is for the “Holocaust writer,” but Appelfeld doesn’t want the label. “There is nothing more annoying,” he writes. “A writer, if he’s a writer, writes from within himself and mainly about himself, and if there is any meaning to what he says, it’s because he’s faithful to himself — to his voice and his rhythm. Theme, subject matter — all these are by-products of his writing, not its essence.”

Semprun ponders many of these same questions in Literature or Life. His title comes from the choice he made in 1946 not to write about his experience. Writing was too much like reliving his death, he explains. Only upon hearing of Primo Levi’s death did he change his mind. What struck me reading Semprun, though, was precisely how fluid his writing is. He is a man most at home with philosophy and poetry. I do not doubt his sincerity when he says that he has struggled over the years to find the right words; but when Appelfeld, who so identifies with stutterers, says the same thing, I believe it.

One final thought: None of this takes up the question of whether a writer should even write about the Holocaust. “There are atrocities that one should not speak about,” a Holocaust survivor says in Appelfeld’s book. It’s a proposition that is considered only in a sidelong way; for something more direct, read J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003).

Appelfeld’s comments here jibe with the frustrating but significant view among many Jews that the Holocaust was not, in fact, a historical event but something more mysterious. Appelfeld had this to say to Philip Roth in 1988:

“The Jewish experience in the Second World War was not ‘historical.’ We came into contact with archaic mythical forces, a kind of dark subconscious the meaning of which we did not know, nor do we know it to this day. This world appears to be rational (with trains, departure times, stations, and engineers), but in fact these were journeys of the imagination, lies and ruses which only deep, irrational drives could be invented. I don’t understand, nor do I yet understand, the motives of the murderers. I was a victim, and I try to understand the victim.”

Appelfeld’s definition of the “historical” eludes me. But I am reminded of how trauma is often defined as memories a person cannot integrate into the rest of his or her life (see Jonathan Shay’s 1995 study Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character). Perhaps — if it’s even appropriate to pathologize the Holocaust — Jews like Appelfeld are not even interested in context or integration. That would mean attempting to understand (and, by extension, maybe forgiving) the Nazis. Rather, Appelfeld sees the Holocaust as having meaning only as something that happened to Jews.

Phillip Lopate, in his essay “Resistance to the Holocaust,” strongly objects to this attitude. He says that a religion of the Holocaust is supplanting traditional Judaism (history as fodder not only for literature but for the spirit). “The hostility toward anything that questions the uniqueness of the Holocaust can now be seen as part of a deeper tendency to view all of Jewish history as ‘unique,’ to read that history selectively, and to use it only insofar as it promotes a redemptive script,” he writes. “Thus, the Holocaust’s ‘mystery’ must be asserted over and over, in the same way as the ‘mystery’ of Jewish survival through the ages, in order to yield the single explanation that God ‘wants’ the Jewish people to live and is protecting them.”

Norman G. Finkelstein is more strident (but less enlightening) on this point. In his controversial book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000), a book that seems to owe quite a bit to Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999), he says this:

Dubbed by Novick the “sacralization of the Holocaust,” this mystification’s most practiced purveyor is Elie Wiesel. For Wiesel, Novick rightly observes, The Holocaust is effectively a “mystery” religion. Thus Wiesel intones that the Holocaust “leads into darkness,” “negates all answers,” “lies outside, if not beyond, history,” “defies both knowledge and description,” “cannot be explained nor visualized,” is “never to be comprehended or transmitted,” marks a “destruction of history” and a “mutation on a cosmic scale.” Only the survivor-priest (read: only Wiesel) is qualified to divine its mystery. And yet, The Holocaust’s mystery, Wiesel avows, is “noncommunicable”; “we cannot even talk about it.” Thus, for his standard fee of $25,000 (plus chauffeured limousine), Wiesel lectures that the “secret” of Auschwitz’s “truth lies in silence.”

This last line of Wiesel’s, of course, echoes much of what Appelfeld has to say in The Story of a Life, a book in which he, over and over again, emphasizes silence over words.

Take this unusually graphic example, an example that hardly refuses to represent the Holocaust in process. Appelfeld writes of how kids were sometimes shipped to labor camps by mistake. In one particular camp (Appelfeld doesn’t indicate whether it was his camp), they were stripped and thrown into the pen where the German shepherd guard dogs were kept. Sometimes they survived, but only for awhile.

“That’s how it was until the Russians came,” a survivor from the camp remembers after the war. “When the Russian army liberated the camp, there were two children in the Pen. They were taken out and brought to the room where interrogations were held. The children stared vacantly, stuttered in broken syllables, shrugged their shoulders — one of them even stamped his feet — but not a sentence escaped from them. The investigators tried to talk to them in a friendly way, first in Yiddish, and then in Polish. At one point an elderly man was brought in who tried to talk to them in Hungarian, but it was no use. Though the children had survived, language had been completely torn from their throats.”

From Buchenwald-survivor Jorge Semprun’s memoir, Literature or Life (1997):

“Listen, guys! The truth we have to tell — that is, if we’ve got the stomach for it, because many won’t even have that — isn’t easily believable … It’s unimaginable — ”

A voice interrupts, goes me one better.

“That’s right!” says a fellow who’s been drinking gloomily and with determination. “It’s so unbelievable that I myself plan to stop believing it, as soon as possible!”

It’s interesting that both Semprun and Appelfeld come up with this word, “unbelievable.” They also both rely heavily on the word “oblivion,” to suggest the opposite of remembering. Both memoirs are works in translation: Semprun from French, Appelfeld from Hebrew. I wonder what words they used in their original languages.

Author of Finding Bix (2017), Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope (2017), and Wolfe’s History (2019). Iowan in Virginia.

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