'Jewish Life Does Not Exist in Europe'

Aharon Appelfeld, who admits he was and remains the Jewish boy who survived the war, has just published his 45th book; he is appalled by the young Israelis who are moving to Europe and is still struck by the beauty of life in Israel.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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Aharon Appelfeld.Credit: Arik Sultan
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

The protagonists of Aharon Appelfeld’s new novel in Hebrew, “Long Summer Nights” (“Laylot Kayitz Arukim”) – a former soldier, now an old, blind nomad called Grandpa Sergei, and a Jewish boy, named Janek, who is placed in his protection – are on an ongoing journey. They pass one village, then another, take shelter in the shade of trees, light a campfire and partake of a slice of bread and a bit of cheese that they buy with money collected by begging. Occasionally they encounter people who are out to do them harm. At other times, they meet with generosity and mercy – even if these qualities are less frequently manifested with World War II raging in the background, its horrors sometimes trickling into the two wanderers’ struggle to survive. Janek encounters his fate only at the moving conclusion of the novel.

Written in Appelfeld’s distinctive lean, spare prose, “Long Summer Nights” is more than a heartrending, coming-of-age tale. Its powerful evocation of solitude and isolation tempts readers to think that they have somehow plumbed the author’s psyche and understood something deep about him.

Aharon’s mother, Bonia, was murdered before he was 8. Ervin (his original name) and his father, Michael, were herded into a ghetto in his native Czernowitz, and then forced to endure a long journey on foot, with the father carrying the boy on his shoulders, to a Nazi labor camp in Transnistria (the part of Ukraine conquered by German and Romanian troops in the summer of 1941). Separated from his father shortly afterward, Appelfeld fled into the forests, surviving in the company of thieves and bandits. He subsequently walked with Red Army soldiers from Romania to Bulgaria and from there with other abandoned children to Italy, finally immigrating to Palestine in 1946, by himself.

In the decades that followed, Appelfeld established a family and became an acclaimed writer. In light of his biography, the novelistic journey of “Long Summer Nights” seems to become an almost consoling experience. Perhaps, one thinks, Appelfeld has rewritten those grim years so that they assume a more benign aura. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that Appelfeld chose Michael as Janek’s Hebrew name. But Appelfeld disputes this interpretation.

“It is not a rewriting, and I do not deal in psychology,” he says. “I am dealing with people, obviously, but I am not explaining phenomena. These are two people who wander and converse. Grandpa Sergei is preparing Janek for life.”

But you gave Janek the Jewish name Michael, which is not just any name as far as you are concerned.

“No.” Appelfeld looks me straight in the eyes. “I have a grandson named Michael,” he says, then pauses, as though wondering what else to say. “A familiar name. To me.”

It’s a name that carries a special warmth for you.

Appelfeld nods.

The laws of fiction

This is the 45th book that Appelfeld, now 83, has published. At a launch event last month in Jerusalem, before a packed hall, he read the book’s first chapter in the soft, measured cadences that make his voice so easily identifiable. His voice was just as whispery a few weeks later when we met in Jerusalem’s upscale Rehavia neighborhood, where he and his wife are renting a house. But there’s no mistaking him. Five years ago, at the Jerusalem International Writers Festival, Appelfeld was asked, in a conversation with the American novelist Nicole Krauss, how he had survived all his ordeals. Short and round-faced, with the ever-present black cap perched on his head, he replied in that same soft voice, “But Nicole, you know that I am a wild creature.”

“You needed something instinctive to stay alive,” he tells me, in reply to the same question. “You need to develop your instincts in order to survive. A child who’s a softy would not make it. Janek, like me, is an only child, a Jewish boy. You might have expected that his fate would be different, but he has the right instincts to accept something of Grandpa Sergei’s approach.”

Once more, the book seems to be based on your life.

“Like all my books, this one is biographical to a certain degree and also not biographical – because fiction has its own laws, and the author needs fiction in his work. Usually, feelings I have experienced are what make me want to write, particularly if the feelings possess a universal character. Feelings I experienced during the Holocaust, which I now embellish. I experienced the Holocaust as a boy of 8. I was 7 when the war broke out, but it took some time for me to truly feel it. I am nourished by those materials.”

And those years, from the age of 8 to 12, left such a powerful impression that it is a source for many books.

“Yes, but that would have come to a very quick end were it not for the creative force. There is a difference between memory, which is something finished and permanent, and remembering, which is a wellspring.”

If I had to guess, I might think that the person who wrote this book is almost nostalgic for those long days, the late sunsets, the feeling of the sun and wind on his face.

“I was a boy. I passed by a brook and drank its waters, and the waters were tasty and cold; I was given a slice of bread and ate, I was happy. But if I didn’t succeed in doing something I was told to do, I was beaten. People equipped me with many experiences,” he laughs, “so it’s no wonder that I write many books.”

With the many books have come many prizes, including the 1983 Israel Prize for Literature; in 2013 he was a finalist for the highly prestigious Man Booker International Prize. Yet there was a time when Appelfeld was criticized for clinging to the subject of the Holocaust and World War II, as well as to his blatantly Jewish literary identity. In this sense, little has changed since he first published poems he had written, in 1956. His initial years in the country were spent in agricultural schools, after which he did army service and ultimately obtained a master’s degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

In 1957, at age 25, he learned that his father had survived the Holocaust and was living in Israel. He traveled to the orchard where his father was working to be reunited with him. Without exchanging a word, he knew for certain that the man was his father. He describes how he went up to the elderly field hand who was standing on a ladder and said, “Herr Appelfeld?” His father looked at him without replying.

Do you remember what you felt?

“A welter of emotions.”

You must have been overwrought.

“‘Overwrought’ is a word that does not belong to me. When something big arrives, something truly big, I tend to be astonished, to sink, become bewildered. I do not respond with a storm of emotion. That is also a matter of fate. I cannot react that way, because I could not allow emotion to dominate me, not as a boy in Europe and not in all those years in Israel, during which, when all is said and done, I was alone.”

You and your father had 20 more years together.

“Yes, but it wasn’t easy, because after losing me when I was a child he continued to treat me as a child all his life. He would call in the morning and say, ‘Ervin, it’s chilly outside, take a sweater.’ I was already married and had children of my own, but he still saw me as a boy.”

You talk about loneliness, and I think about the ending of your new novel, which is so touching. I wonder what you would say to that lonely child today.

“That lonely person will have a long life, meet people, try to help himself and others.”

His choice of words is interesting. Later, when asked about his role as a writer, he will say describe it as “a sense of obligation imposed on me,” that made him choose writing, and more especially his themes. “As though it is my obligation to bring to the surface my interior, which is both personal, and also – this is something I knew – very much collective.”

‘Childish literature’

Appelfeld, according to Noa Mannheim, the Hebrew literature editor at Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Appelfeld’s publisher, is “a bridge that connects the fate of one child to the fate of all the Jews.” But that trait was not always appreciated. “I came to this country in 1946,” he says, “and even though I spent time on kibbutzim that tried to change me, I did not change. I remained, basically, the Jewish refugee child who survived.”

Did you want to change, to become the new sabra?

“Everyone around me changed, but I did not want to be something I wasn’t. I wanted to be me and that’s how I remained – a Jewish child who had Jewish parents and Jewish grandparents. My parents were assimilated Jews, but my grandparents observed tradition. Wherever I was, I searched for myself. I remember that I used to run off occasionally to Jaffa, because there was a concentration of Holocaust refugees there. They opened stands and small shops, restaurants. I went there in order to be close to those who had been in the camps.”

That is very touching.

He nods. “The desire – what was thought necessary – was to knead this young material and turn it into pioneers, Palmachniks [i.e., members of the pre-state militia]. Everywhere the slogan was ‘Forget,’ but I wanted to remember. To be close to people who went through experiences similar to mine. Even later on, I did not want Israeli ‘localism.’ I wanted to be me. A stubborn child.”

Appelfeld insisted on retaining his identity at a time when the old customs were scorned, and he paid a price in terms of criticism. At present, a different struggle for identity and rights – of the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent) – looks almost like a mirror image of his.

“There are many energies in this country that have not yet been manifested,” Appelfeld explains. “People who went through the Holocaust hardly wrote about it – a few memoirs, some history, but hardly any writing of experience, fictional prose. It’s the same with the members of the Mizrahi communities: They arrived here rife with experiences, some of them messianic in nature – aliyah driven by a messianic feeling – and very few wrote about it. There are multitudes of energies that have not yet coalesced and been given expression in literature. The literature that exists is that of the old-time, Labor-settlement movement.

“That is what I call Eretz-Israel localism,” he continues. “You hear nothing beyond that. It’s the voice of childish literature: Children arrived at this hill, children of the Hebrew Yishuv [pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine] did this or that – as though life began only here. I did not disconnect myself from what existed before that. When I write about my parents, I am writing about assimilated Jews; when I write about my grandparents, I am writing about Jews who observed tradition, who were involved in their Judaism. Here I was dubbed a ‘Holocaust writer.’ I am not a Holocaust writer.”

Did that bother you? It was meant as criticism.

“That criticism means reduction, writing ‘for those unfortunates.’ Critical reviews said I was ‘too Jewish,’ and it was never clear to me what was meant by ‘too much Holocaust,’ or by ‘too Jewish.’ The attitude toward me was ambivalent, they didn’t know what to make of me.”

Perhaps because the attitude toward the Holocaust itself and toward those who dared to cling to the old ways of their families was ambivalent.

“Very true. At the same time, I received every possible prize in Israel – though it’s true I received even more prizes abroad.” He laughs. “Those are external things, they make no difference.”

What does make a difference, Appelfeld believes, is the fact that many young Israelis are returning to Europe. The holders of foreign passports who are immigrating to countries from which their grandparents fled is due to “a great inner confusion,” he says.

Why? They are claiming what is theirs by law.

“Jewish life does not exist in Europe at this particular time. There are vestiges of it, perhaps. I meet such people in Germany and France; they are not Israeli, not German, not French. There is nothing to hold onto. Here there is something to hold onto. Europe has become a den of iniquity.”

Are you a Zionist?

“I am a Jew.”

Is there any place for Jews other than Israel?

“Not at this moment. The wheel of history is such that before World War II, there was a flourishing Jewish life in Europe, great Jewish culture, schools, Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Who imagined that within decades not a trace would be left there? Here there is history, there is progress, a language that is growing richer in meaning. If someone has no interest in being a Jew, that is no simple matter either. There are many Israelis in the United States, and they are lost. They are neither there nor here; they have no spiritual world. You can say that there isn’t always a spiritual world in Israel, either, but there is if you want.”

Perhaps thanks to the use of the language and to life together.

“Yes, and there are old sources to which one can refer. Life here is not idyllic, but it possesses a beauty of its own. There are people you are happy to meet and there is literature, poetry and music.”

Aging process

Apropos literature, Appelfeld has a drawer filled with unpublished manuscripts and a way of writing that recalls a wine cellar. After writing a book he usually forgets about it, only to reread if three or four years later and then set it aside for a few more years before completing it. “I don’t work to the rhythm of time,” he explains simply. “I write, and when the book is more or less done, I put it in a drawer for a few years. Afterward I go back to it, in several stages, and read and correct.”

Why do you work like that?

“By his nature, a person repeats himself, confuses things, writes things that are unnecessary. To uproot mistakes requires a certain distance. ‘Long Summer Nights’ lay in a drawer for about five years.”

How many books are still in the drawer?

“There are a number of them. There are some I will not go back to.”

At the moment, Appelfeld relates, he is reworking a book that was written seven or eight years ago. He reexamined it for the first time four years ago, “and now the time has come to work on it.”

You age your books.

“It’s wonderful. After it’s set aside, the mistakes surface, the unnecessary leaps out.”

Are you still writing new books?

“What do you mean? I’ve just begun,” he smiles.

Do you feel that you are fulfilling a mission on behalf of your generation?

“‘Mission’ is a big word. I feel more comfortable with the word ‘obligation.’ It is my role.”