The Irish Times – Friday, March 16, 2001
Fiction for a better reality
It’s not difficult to spot him: “a small old Jew with glasses” is how he describes himself. But there are other attributes to be ascribed to Aharon Appelfeld, in Dublin this week to give the keynote speech at the Holocaust Conference in TCD. Gentleness is one of them, which is astounding when one learns the toughness of his story.
Born just 70 years ago into a well-to-do family in what was then Romania, he had a privileged upbringing with regular holiday stays in the great cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Bratislava, Prague and Vienna. German was his mother tongue, but he also spoke Ukrainian and Romanian. The neighbours spoke Polish and his grandparents spoke Yiddish.
The happy, cosmopolitan childhood came to an abrupt end, however, with a knock on the door. His mother was taken away and murdered and he and his father deported. Their crime: being Jewish. Aharon Appelfeld was eight.
“I hadn’t been aware of being Jewish,” he says. “It was a secret in our home. My family had assimilated and we thought of ourselves as Europeans.” Separated from his father, he ended up in a concentration camp in the Ukraine, from which, at the age of nine, he escaped, to find shelter of sorts with a local prostitute.
“We lived in one room, the same room the men came to. My job was to clean the house and get the shopping. The men were harsh to her and she was harsh with me,” Appelfeld recalls.
After a while, people started to wonder about him, a blond blue-eyed boy who was somehow different. It was another child who challenged him.
“He asked me if I was a Jew,” he says. “And I don’t know if you’d call it wisdom or cowardice, but I said: `How dare you call a Christian boy like me a Jew?’ But I knew then it was too dangerous to stay.”
He fled to the forest and there was taken up by a band of horse-thieves. “You know of this profession?” he asks. “It was frightening, having to creep about the stables at midnight. I was small, so they could put me through doors and over walls, but it was the second stage of my education and I left with an `A’ on my diploma.” His wry asides bring humour to a situation that to others might have seemed hopeless. Hope, however, was always there.
“I escaped from the concentration camp not because I was a brave nine-year-old, but because I wanted to get back to my mother,” he says. “I knew she was waiting for me. I still do. Besides, it wasn’t too difficult. It was 1941 and the camps were not yet industrialised.” By which he means the barbed-wire fences had not been electrified.
After his stint with the horse-thieves came the liberating Russian army which set him to work as a kitchen boy. Eventually, in 1947, he found himself on a refugee boat heading for Haifa, harried for two days by the British navy intent on stopping any more refugees arriving in Palestine. He had, by then, reached the ripe old age of 14.
In 1948, the state of Israel came into being.
“I was sent to a kibbutz, where we worked in the fields in the morning and then studied Hebrew in the afternoon,” he says. “I was learning to be a Jewish peasant. It was all ideology then. In the kibbutzim as well. You had to forget your history because the Holocaust showed the Jews as weak. We had to forget all that. You had to be robust, strong, they said. You had to be `normal’.
“There were things we were told we should be: you should be a farmer, you should be a soldier. There was an absence of spirituality. It was anti-religious, anti-Jewish, if you wish. Of course, there was idealism too, it’s true, but like most revolutions, it was harsh.”
To a 14-year-old, going on 40, it didn’t make sense.
“I had seen too much and I knew things simply weren’t black and white,” Appelfeld says.
There was also the question of his identity. Here he was, in Israel, being told, yet again, to suppress his Jewishness.
“Before, we tried to be European,” he says. “We felt ourselves European. Look at the contribution Jews made to European culture, to music, poetry, literature. Jews contributed to the creation of Europe. Look at the three great writers of that century: Proust, Kafka and . . .” – there’s a slight pause – “. . . and Joyce.”
He smiles. We’ve already agreed that sometimes fiction is another aspect of reality.
Learning Hebrew was a necessity that presented problems.
“I had lost my parents and now I had to lose my mother tongue,” he says. He still speaks Yiddish to his wife.
The Holocaust remains a mystery. “You try to understand, but camps and ghettos are not reasonable matters. And in the camps there were orchestras, people made to play Bach and Mozart. And I think, you kill them, fine, but why the classical music first? That I can’t understand. What I do know is, evil must be defined,” he says.
After completing a university education, he started teaching Hebrew literature, although his first duty was to writing. So far, there have been 40 books in all, including long and short fiction, essays and literary criticism. All the novels – among them The Iron Tracks, The Conversion, The Retreat, Badenheim 1939 – are about the Holocaust. And while he’s telling me this, he delivers another of his asides.
“I don’t really believe in education,” he says. “What a child sees at home is what matters. How people act with each other, how they walk and talk.”
The Holocaust historian, Deborah Lipstadt, has said that knowledge and memory are among the keystones of our civilisation, and it was Appelfeld’s father – with whom he was unexpectedly reunited after 20 years – who helped him regain some of his childhood memories. And his mother? I ask. Is she now just a memory?
“She is more than a memory,” he says, transcending time and matter.
His analysis of the Israeli/Palestinian situation is bleak.
“In every complex situation, you have tragedy, and if someone is prepared to accept the complexity then, OK, I am prepared to sit and talk with them,” he says. “But if they think it is black and white, if they say Jews are imperialists, then I do not accept that. With Barak, you know, the other one” – and he waves the palm of his hand over his shoulder – “with compromises and concessions, there was a chance of peace. Now maybe neither Arabs nor Jews are ripe enough for a peaceful solution. Maybe in 20, 30 years.”
Of one thing he is certain: if all the Palestinians try to return to their families’ former homes, it will mean the end of the state of Israel.
“The Arabs must be offered compensation and international money must be found for this,” he says.
He has retired this year from his professorship and will now devote himself full-time to writing.
“I have really just begun,” he says, softly and almost apologetically. And he will continue to write novels because “it’s better. For what you can’t have in reality, fiction will give to you.”
Aharon Appelfeld is published in the US by Schocken and in the UK by Quartet.