Aharon Appelfeld by Thomas Thornton

BOMB 64 Summer 1998
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Aharon Appelfeld

Aharon Appelfeld. Photo by Frederic Brenner. Courtesy of Schocken Books.

Aharon Appelfeld is a writer with distinct Jewish themes—among his 11 books published in English are Badenheim 1939 The Age of WondersUnto the SoulConversion is forthcoming—yet his oeuvre has long had international impact. In 1983 he received the Israel Prize, his country’s most prestigious literary award; in 1987 the Harold U. Ribelow Prize, in 1990 the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service. A few times, one hears, he was under consideration for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now part of Ukraine) in 1932, he and his father were put into a concentration camp in 1941. Appelfeld escaped in 1942, spending the next few years hiding in the forests, until he moved to Palestine after the end of Would War II. Today he lives near Jerusalem.

I had met Appelfeld twice before, both times in 1994. Born and raised in West Germany and still a German citizen, I had not been without apprehension before our first meeting. Yet my fondness for the man was almost instantaneous: in addition to his profound intelligence and great humor, Appelfeld has a kindness and gentleness about him that touched me and made me feel right away I had found a friend. When I met with him for this interview, which took place on March 26, 1998, I had three main themes in mind: language, spirituality, and memory. Appelfeld’s latest novel, The Iron Tracks, about a peddler of Judaica who, 40 years after the Second World War, sets out to kill a former concentration camp guard, had recently been published in the States.

Aharon Appelfeld Why is the magazine for which you’re conducting this interview called BOMB? Does it explode?

Thomas Thornton I guess it’s explosive—both the literature and the art. Or maybe the interviewee will explode when the interviewer asks the wrong questions. Let’s find out: don’t you think there is something strange about the constellation of this interview—you being interviewed by me, considering where we’re from?

AA You mean, because you’re German? Why should it be strange? You were born so many years after all this … You see, I have not been back to Germany, still. But my books are published in Germany and a lot of people from Germany come to see me and interview me. It’s very interesting: The New Yorker asked me to go home to write a piece about my town.

TT Czernowitz? Really?

AA Yes. And I’ll do it.

TT Have you never been back there?

AA No, no. It was just impossible, first because of Russia, and it’s still a very dangerous place.

TT Do you have any explanation for the fact that a small town like Czernowitz was the birthplace of several outstanding German writers? You have Paul Celan, Joseph Roth, I believe—

AA —not from the actual town, but from the province of Czernowitz. Also, Rose Ausländer.

TT Why is this?

AA Well, first of all, for the Jewish people, the middle class and the assimilated Jews, German was a religion, not a language. They absolutely worshipped it. It was cultivated in a way in which it became a substitute for Jewishness. You were actually converted to German, to the German language. It was not only my parents who spoke it well and read it well, from newspapers, to periodicals, to books. The literature was German. And then of course, Czernowitz was between the East and the West. So on the one hand it was part of the Hapsburg Empire, but it was also in the middle of the Ukraine, in Ruthenia. Then, after the First World War, it became part of Romania. Some neighbors were Polish, other neighbors were Russian. Czernowitz is a town where a lot of cultures came together.

TT Was anyone aware at the time of the writers that would later become so famous? Celan, of course, was only about ten, 12 years older than you.

AA A book was published in Berlin about Czernowitz. It’s entitled In der Sprache der Morder[In the language of the murderers]. It’s about the contribution of Jews to modern literature, kind of a small encyclopedia.

TT Were people in the German-speaking world, your parents, for example, aware of Celan, do you think?

AA I think so, yes. He was a neighbor of ours, you know.

TT So you did know him?

AA I didn’t. At the beginning of the war, I was seven-and-a-half years old, and he was 19, 20 years old.

TT Did you ever meet him after the war, before his suicide in 1970?

AA Of course.

TT Was there any spiritual connection? Although you shared the same place of origin, as writers you are so vastly different.

AA He was a very introverted person. We could not actually speak. It was a dialogue of silence, really. We would have a drink together …

TT There was a strictness about him that I experience as almost inhuman, whereas in your writings, even the most unimaginable horrors are brought down to a very human level. You’ve said that you once, or even more than once, deliberately tried to write from the perspective of a child. To explore how naïveté can be transformed into an artistic vision.

AA Yes, it’s true, but I haven’t done that persistently. Of course it’s important to see a certain time from a certain angle. But I’ve looked at history from various angles. Have you seen my new book, The Iron Tracks?

TT Yes, and that brings me back to my original question, of you being confronted with your past by talking to me. How close can one get to the past? In The Iron Tracks it seems as if the act of revenge is almost meaningless. Shooting the killer is in absolutely no relation to the horror that took place.

AA The deed is out of context, it is almost a stupidity, a weakness the act of revenge comes very late of course, long after the crime were committed. There is no more room for that deed now.

TT Doesn’t that somehow add to the tragedy? The realization that even revenge cannot get one close to what really happened?

AA Oh yes.

TT In that sense, the act of revenge seems tragic.

AA The man who was the actual killer passed away, so to speak; he no longer exists. Now we have a man somewhere, and with something, who is not even related to that past. The irony is almost malicious, but cunning in a way, because on the one hand you say, Yes, our protagonist has a purpose in life, but when he fulfills that purpose, we realize that it’s so out of proportion, so inappropriate, so hopeless—pathetic almost.

TT Yes, yes. But he has a separate mission. An illusion of a mission. He collects these old Judaica and buys and sells them. What can one do today, so many years afterwards, with a memory of what you went through? You’ve said that one must attempt to transform the Holocaust into a spiritual vision. Religion, I’ve heard it said, is for those who are afraid to go to hell, whereas spirituality is for those who’ve been there. You were there. How can the experience of hell be transformed into a spiritual vision?

AA You see, I don’t have a theological or philosophical way of thinking. When I deal with my parents, or the generation of my parents, who were assimilated Jews and who ran away from their Jewishness and became German—who wanted to be Viennese or from Prague—I understand them very well, and am close to them. Because they felt that their Jewishness was somehow anachronistic; that it would lead into a narrow-minded past. They wanted to be in a wider world. They thought that Germany, Prague, Vienna were the best of Western civilization. So I am writing about them, and about their hopes and the disappointments they suffered. I don’t know if you would call that spirituality. They were people who, because they lacked their own tradition, wanted to belong somewhere else. They were people with a great many complexes, a lot of sensitivities, they were people between hope and despair. My grandparents, who still were believers, belonged to a different category. When I’m with them, I’m with them. For them Jewishness was something very dear.

TT If I remember correctly, your grandparents spoke Yiddish, which was forbidden in your parents’ house.

AA They spoke Yiddish, of course. My parents were very aware of it and didn’t want me to pick up too much of it.

TT Did you pick up Yiddish?

AA Yes, but I really learned it later. In the camps Yiddish became more and more important for many reasons. In the ghetto and the camps and then in my wanderings I learned a lot of Yiddish. And then I made quite an effort to learn it. I learned both languages, Hebrew and Yiddish. Coming back to your question, I’m not used to speaking in theological or philosophical terms. When I’m with my grandparents, I’m totally with them.

TT When you think of how you were deprived of the chance to go through the years in which you probably would have argued with your parents about their and your Jewish roots, does that fill you with anger? Is the feeling more one of sadness? How would you describe it?

AA It’s not sadness. No. They were real people and I loved them and I was close to them. First of all because I was a young child when I was with them, but that’s not the only reason. Since they were assimilated Jews, it was a struggle for them to say no to their roots; saying no was not easy. They also held the belief that Jews should become part of the Western civilization. This was of course an illusion, because they had always been looked at as Jews, not as part of the Western civilization. They saw themselves as universalists. What did that mean? It was a kind of deception, if you wish. Western civilization, in any case, saw them as Jews, as dangerous people. It said, They should be killed. In the middle of the street in Czernowitz, filled with drunk people on a Sunday evening, some would say, “Bloody Jew.” You know, that was a common expression. But people like my parents didn’t want to see this as a reality—I mean, before the war.

TT How would you define “Jewish”? I’m asking the question simply because when you think of National Socialism, the ethnic concept of Jewishness doesn’t work, because ethnically, Jew-hating members of the PLO are Semites as well. Neither does the religious definition work, because obviously, assimilated Jews were as ruthlessly exterminated as were religious Jews. So what does “Jewish” really mean?

AA You can approach the concept by different venues. For an Orthodox Jew, being Jewish means to speak the Jewish language, to live among Jews, and to believe in the Torah. It’s that simple. Up until the 19th century, this included all the Jews in the world. So here the definition is very clear-cut. It becomes complicated with assimilated Jews. By denying his Jewishness, by wanting to become part of the Western civilization, the assimilated Jew became a very sensitive creature. As an assimilated Jew, you are an outsider in your own culture. But you are also an outsider in the culture you wish to be part of. Being a double outsider makes you a very complicated individual—you know the extremes like Karl Kraus or Otto Weininger. Mind and feeling and sensation—and their way of thinking—were slightly altered over time. No wonder that from the assimilated Jews came quite a remarkable literature.

TT I live in Washington Heights, the section of New York City that used to facetiously be called the “Fourth Reich,” because so many German and Austrian Jewish émigrés lived there. When I moved there well over ten years ago, I was stunned by how German my neighbors were. At first I was somewhat surprised that I never experienced the irrational rejection one might expect after the irrational hatred and cruelty those people suffered in my—our—country. But then it was also hard for me to believe how German they still were—I’m referring to their constantly getting involved in what was none of their business. You know: Where was I going, to the park? Had I cleaned my apartment after new windows were installed in our building? Shouldn’t I be wearing a sweater when it was so chilly out? I had thought I had left all that finally behind when I left Germany.

AA You call that German behavior?

TT Absolutely.

AA It’s very much an obsessive characteristic of Jews.

TT Years ago I talked to a German-born writer friend about this, Hans Sahl, who was almost 90 at the time. He said: I’m telling you, we assimilated Jews wanted to be more German than the Germans themselves, and one doesn’t shed such characteristics just by leaving the country.

AA Very true.

TT How would you define your own Jewishness, now that you’ve lived in Israel since even before it was founded? You once said you had found Judaism. What does Judaism actually mean to you?

AA Interestingly, what is happening to me as a writer reflects what is happening to me as a human being. Because I come from an assimilated tradition, I’m an assimilated Jew. But because I went through what I did, I don’t have the innocence of my grandparents; I have more than a curiosity in the older Jewish texts, the philosophical sources, the mystical sources, and so on.

TT Jewishness is a topic in all of your works, even when the protagonist is a gentile like Katerina [in Katerina]. What is the spiritual vision that you could see as a redemption from hell?

AA There is no redemption, and there should be no redemption. It’s imprinted in you, for good. You cannot take away such a memory. The question is how to transform it in a way that will be meaningful to you and to other people. Otherwise it’s endless despair.

TT Last month I was in Berlin and, now that there is no longer an East German border to cross, visited the memorial site of the Sachsenhausen extermination camp. Some eight years after the Wall came down, it is still in the process of being transformed from an East German memorial site to a Western European memorial site. There was a photograph of concentration camp inmates, and the caption read something like: “The Face of German Anti-Fascism.” On the opposite wall there was a sign saying, “The patriotic Russian people rose under the leadership of the Communist Party and crushed Fascist imperialism.” Seeing those five emaciated people, the experience of unspeakable horror in their faces, it seemed almost cynical to refer to them as “the face of anti-Fascism”—I mean, these people must have died within days or certainly weeks after that photograph was taken. The photograph’s absurd caption suddenly made it clear to me that I was not merely visiting a site commemorating the Holocaust, but at the same time a site in memory of how the Communist East viewed, and wanted everybody else to view, the Holocaust—which in turn made clear to me that it is simply impossible for anybody who did not suffer through it, to look at the Holocaust non-ideologically. By seeing those victims through the eyes of the Communists, I realized that the West too can look at that horror only through a certain filter. The reality of what happened can ultimately not be grasped, and we need to accept the fact that it is unfathomable. What is your response to museums—say, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC?

AA Generally speaking, I believe more in the word and in the dialogue. The danger of a museum is that one mainly sees the “highlights,” the dramatic moments, the black-and-white language, and not the gray areas. You see, for me, and people like me, the Holocaust was also (and it is tragic to say this, but it needs to be said)—it meant that we found our Jewishness again. Only the Holocaust brought us back to our Jewishness. I remember when as a child I escaped from the camp and suddenly found myself alone in the forest. The thought that occurred to me was: What’s wrong with me? Something must be wrong with me. Everybody (not only the Germans, you know, the Ukrainians—everyone) was ready to kill you, so something must be wrong with you. This thought—that something was actually wrong with me—brought me back to my Jewishness. And so I ended up going to Israel. The worst part of that mental process was that one started wondering how our parents could not see this.

TT It took you a while to find Judaism. You arrived in what is today Israel in ’46, I believe, so you were what, 14 years old?

AA I was 14 years old. For a while I was totally disoriented, not knowing why I was in Israel.

TT The same holds true for your writings. Is it true that you first published in German poetry—then also in Russian and in Polish?

AA No. I began publishing in the only language in which I could write.

TT That you wrote in those three languages first is stated in an encyclopedia Contemporary Authors.

AA I began to write in Hebrew, because Hebrew was my first written language. I was imprisoned in the camp when I had completed only first grade. When I came to Israel I spoke many languages, badly of course, but I had no written language. No books.

TT Does that still influence your writing, the fact that Hebrew is not your native tongue, but your sixth or seventh language?

AA Of course, because I always have the feeling that what I’m writing is somehow not mine. It’s borrowed in a way. It’s a bit of, you have to study it more, still. Hebrew, nonetheless, is the only language I’ve mastered.

TT You still do read the other languages, though. You said that you read Kafka in his (and your) vernacular, a special kind of German.

AA I read a lot of translations in Hebrew, so I will be permanently affiliated with the language. It’s like holding your parents’ hands when you are a kid walking in the street. A mother tongue, a real mother tongue, gives you security. With an adopted language, you always say, Oh, is it true that that’s how we say this? Is this how you put it? Let me check this again. In a mother tongue you don’t check for an unclear phrase. So I somehow have to be alert all the time. But on the other hand, Hebrew gives me a lot of joy. It’s a plush language which wasn’t used for 2,500 years, not as a spoken language. I am glad to be one of those who renewed the language.

TT I believe it was actually a decision by the new state of Israel to establish Hebrew as the national language.

AA Yes. When I came to Israel in ’46, there were half a million people living there, and more than half of them couldn’t speak Hebrew. This means only 200,000 to 250,000 people spoke Hebrew, and even their Hebrew was poor. Hebrew as Israel’s spoken language was one of the miracles. Look at the Irish, what kinds of efforts were made there to revive nationalism—and they have their own government and enough reasons to speak Irish and not English, historically.

TT Did you learn Hebrew between 1946, when you arrived, and 1948, when Israel was founded?

AA Yes. Do you remember that you promised to come to Israel and visit me?

TT I would still love to go. But when my son was eight, he was largely separated from me by the court. He is now 11, the age you were when you escaped from the camp and were separate from your parents, and apparently our judge—who is well known for hating men—wants him to move with his mother to another country to be separated from me. I’ve spent all my money and more trying to get my child back. I’d love to visit Israel with him once this insanity is over.

AA I’m very sorry to hear that is happening to you and your son.

TT As ironic as this may seem to you, though I am not a religious person, my background is Christian, and among many other things, I would like to go to Israel to trace my Christian roots. How is the political climate right now, by the way? Obviously, many people are very unhappy with Netanyahu, and your colleague Amos Oz is under severe attack from conservatives in the Knesset.

AA You see, the tragedy of Israel now is its polarization. There is a double polarization: between right and left; and an even stronger one between the nonreligious and the religious. Sometimes these two polarizations are mingled together. These issues are emotionally very charged. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, he is a kind of small Clinton. He has his affairs. He is a bit of a moderate, because he was coached in America. He actually grew up in America, studied in America. He brought all the good and bad things from America.

TT How seriously should one take the attacks on Amos Oz? The controversy around the Israel Prize, a literary prize, which some say he should not be allowed to receive?

AA Yes. It’s a serious prize—Israel’s highest prize. Amos Oz is on the very left, and the government is on the very right. The debate is not a literary debate.

TT Is it always a political affair with the Israel Prize? What was it like when you received it?

AA You see, about my work—I have to actually tell you a little bit about the history of how my work has been accepted in Israel. I began to write in Israel in the ’50s, after making a great mental effort to cope with the Holocaust. My first book, Smoke, is about people who came to Israel after the Holocaust and live on the shore of Tel Aviv, continuing their life of the ghetto, of the camps. They’re continuing their lives smuggling, not living in homes but in tents. Elderly prostitutes continue to be prostitutes. Smugglers continue to be smugglers. Their pockets are full of money, which they exchange on the black market. This is a book of short stories; it was impossible to publish, because what kind of people were these, I was asked by the publishers? They should have been pioneers. They should have been working. For in the ’40s and ’50s, Israel was a very Socialist country, not Communist, but very, very Socialist. So these people come after the Holocaust and sleep on the shore and don’t work but smuggle? The criticism came in a language that was probably used in the Soviet Union: We are coming here to claim new Jews and not smugglers. The book is called Smoke because they’re all chain smokers. Finally a small publishing house published it—a friend of mine established a small printing house to do it.

TT How do people in Israel receive your books now?

AA In the beginning, the reception was polarized. Those on the right felt my books were not about Jews as they should be, and those on the left thought they should be more political. Now my books are widely read and appreciated.

TT And here in America?

AA Here my books were warmly received. I deal with a Jewish society that has a lot in common with the American society.

TT What about Germany?

AA The Germans are confused by them. They don’t quite know what to make of my books. My books deal with the Holocaust, yet I don’t talk directly about Germany. My interest was the individual victim and his spiritual struggle. The Germans stay behind as demons in a permanent nightmare.

TT You are, of all the people I’ve ever met, the one person who’s had to fight hardest to even be alive. What kind of effect does that experience have? Does it increase your appreciation of life? Does it decrease it?

AA What actually happened to me was that there were a lot of wonderful people who helped me, people in the camp as well as others. They would give me a piece of bread or a cup of water or something like that. I see these people when I write. All the time I was surrounded by monsters, but the very few who not only didn’t want to kill me but gave me a piece of bread or a good word, have stayed with me.

TT Which brings us back to the theme of memory. In conclusion, permit me to quote from The Iron Tracks: “My memory is a powerful machine that stores and constantly discharges lost years and faces. In the past I believed that travel would blunt my memory. I was wrong. Over the years I must admit it has only grown stronger. Were it not for my memory, my life would be different. Better, I assume. My memory fills me up until I choke on a stream of daydreams.” How much of that is true for Aharon Appelfeld?

AA It’s true for me, but there is a difference when they overflow you and you put them into words. Then they have a meaning.

TT You try to achieve both—preserving memory and discharging it; preserving it not as a burden, but as a transformed vision. You remember in order to create meaning. In your forthcoming novel, too? Could you say one word about The Conversion?

AA It’s about pre-Holocaust life in Europe. It centers around a love story between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman. A tragedy that is unavoidable. Listen, you have to come to Israel. Then we’ll take walks, we’ll talk more.

Thomas Thornton is an editor, translator, and writer specializing on issues of the 20th century. His forthcoming translation, Hitler’s Vienna: A Dictator’s Apprenticeship, a biography of the young Hitler, will be published in Spring 1999 by Oxford University Press.  

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