Aharon Appelfeld, Whose Writing Explored the Horrors of the Holocaust, Dies at 85

A selection of quotations, interviews, and tributes to the acclaimed Israeli novelist

The Paris Review

“You know, God is everywhere. He is in the human heart. He is in the plants. He is in the animals. Everywhere. You have to be very careful when you speak to human beings because the man who is standing in front of you has something divine in himself. Trees, they have something divine in them. Animals of course. And even objects, they have something of the divine.”

—Aharon Appelfeld, The Paris Review

Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel’s foremost contemporary writers, died today at the age of eighty-five.

Appelfeld was the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and memoir, many of which derived their inspiration and force from his childhood in war-torn Europe. He was born in Romania, where he was apprehended by Nazi-allied forces at the age of nine. His mother and grandmother were shot, and he and his father were eventually sent to the Transnistria concentration camps. Appelfeld described his internment there as a kind of transformation: “I became a small animal. It was the wish for life, the wish to survive.” In 1942, he managed to escape; he spent two years in hiding. At one point, he lived in the forest among a band of thieves, and, later, in the home of a Ukrainian prostitute. He joined the Soviet army, spent time in a displaced persons camp in Italy, and finally immigrated to Palestine in 1946, at age fifteen. Nearly a decade later, after spotting his father’s name on a list of survivors, they were reunited in Israel.

— ‘Aharon Appelfeld: “You cannot be a writer of death”‘, The Daily, The Paris Review

The New York Times

As someone whose mother was killed at the beginning of World War II, and who escaped a labor camp to hide among hostile peasants, Mr. Appelfeld made the Holocaust his great subject. Yet he told his stories from a seemingly naïve eye, a baffled child’s eye, working by indirection and intimation. The horrors, as critics pointed out, happened offstage; his novels rarely identified the threat explicitly as storm troopers with whips or concentration camps with poison-gas showers.

— ‘Aharon Appelfeld, Israeli Novelist Haunted by the Holocaust, Dies at 85’, The New York Times

Tablet Magazine

My conviction that Aharon Appelfeld was the greatest Jewish writer alive began when I was perhaps 50 pages into his first novel to be translated into English, Badenheim 1939. It was a Holocaust novel, perhaps the greatest Holocaust novel ever written, I suddenly surmised, set in a spa town, before the war even started. It conveyed the desperation, self-deception, fratricidal impulses, paranoia and dread of a people sentenced to die.

What was so remarkable was that Appelfeld conveyed this sweeping psychological portrait of a people on the edge of annihilation without a single scene from a ghetto, a concentration camp, or a gas chamber. At the very end of the book there was a train. The train did all the work, I saw. I marveled at the weirdness, the historicity, the mythic economy, of this highly unusual creation, a masterpiece of irony that was at the same time exceedingly empathetic and gentle, at the same time as it terrified me. It was like a bedtime story written by Kafka. Then I forgot about it, or mostly forgot about it.

Why? I was in my late 20s, and not particularly interested in the Holocaust or Jews. I had a particular contempt for the phrase “Jewish writer,” which struck me as a kind of obedient nice-boy and nice-girl ethno-literary catch-basin whose purpose, aside from selling books to synagogue ladies, was to advertise the merits of the American dream by way of exposing a few of its more minor rich-person discontents. It’s a great country, says my son the professor! The entire exercise was nonsensical. Did Jewish writers write Jewish sentences, in English? No one would ever call Thomas Pynchon a “Jewish writer,” even if he turned out to be Jewish—and calling Kafka a “Jewish writer” sounded like something the Nazis would say before burning his books on a pyre. Was Ralph Ellison an “African-American” writer? Was Melville a “white whale” writer? Only illiterate morons who taught in universities talked or thought that way.

— ‘A Last Conversation with Aharon Appelfeld’, Tablet Magazine

The New Yorker

“I’m a hero in one of Philip Roth’s novels,” the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld told me, nearly twenty years ago, over lunch at a Jerusalem café where he liked to work. It was the sort of thing that a Philip Roth hero would say, particularly in the book in question, “Operation Shylock,” a mashup of nonfiction and fiction, in which Roth goes to interview Appelfeld at the same café where I met him, and, while he’s in Jerusalem, gets embroiled with a zealous impostor who is posing as the real Philip Roth. The interview itself is the real deal, not a work of imagination but, rather, an uncommonly intelligent piece of literary journalism, which had run in the Times years before Roth wove it into the book. But, just as Roth has his fictional double in the book, Appelfeld, too, is present there both as a nonfictional voice and as a character who is, in significant respects, Roth’s invention. This experience, of being a novelist who got novelized, had taken Appelfeld by surprise. He said Roth never let on that he was going to do that to him, and it was strange to have people calling him to ask if he really was a member of the Mossad, as the book suggested. But Appelfeld didn’t mind. “It never disturbed me because Philip is a good friend of mine, and I know I am in his fantasy,” he said, and he added, “I always felt that fiction was the way to the deepest truths.”

Appelfeld, who died yesterday, at the age of eighty-five, was one of the subtlest, most unorthodox, and most exactingly perceptive novelists to make the memory of the Holocaust his abiding project. He was born in Romania, and was eight when the war became his life. His mother was killed. He was deported with his father to Trans-Dniester, in Ukraine. He escaped alone from a concentration camp there. He sustained himself for three years as a vagabond farm-laborer. He wound up for a while as a kitchen boy in the Soviet Army. He fetched up next in a refugee camp, then on a kibbutz in Palestine, then fighting in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. At that point he was just sixteen, and felt totally inhabited by overwhelming memories, yet at the same time unable to summon anything like a complete or precise account of any part of his lost boyhood or his odyssey through hell. So he began, over the ensuing decade, to write stories. “I remember something, but not too much,” he told me. “Therefore I’m writing fiction, because I understood immediately that my memory is weak and I must fill it with imagination.”

— ‘Aharon Appelfeld and the Truth of Fiction in Remembering the Holocaust’, The New Yorker


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