Prolific Israeli Author and Holocaust Survivor Aharon Appelfeld Dead at 85

The Israel Prize laureate, who had a wide readership abroad in translation, penned dozens of novels, many set in the Holocaust, but insisted, 'I am not a Holocaust author'

Aharon Appelfeld
Arik Sultan

Israeli writer and Israel Prize laureate Aharon Appelfeld died early Thursday at age 85. A prolific author whose works were translated into a number of languages and who had a wide following in the English-speaking world, the last of his 45 books, "Timahon" ("Astonishment"), was published in Hebrew in 2017. His most recent book in English, "The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping: A Novel," was published a year ago.

A survivor of the Holocaust, Appelfeld resisted being labeled a "Holocaust author." Born Ervin Appelfeld to a German-speaking Jewish family in Romania in 1932, he immigrated to pre-state Israel alone in 1946. His mother was murdered before he was eight. He and his father were deported to a ghetto and from there, his father carried him on a forced march to a labor camp in Transnistria. A short time later, and his father were separated. He fled, wandering for two years.

The cover of Aharon Appelfeld's book, "Badenheim 1939,".

He spent one year during World War II in the home of a Ukrainian prostitute, but then sensed danger approaching and hid in the forest, where he survived among a bands of thieves. He ultimately linked up with soldiers from the Soviet army and went with them on foot from Romania to Bulgaria and then with a group of children who had no families to Italy, from which he left for British-ruled Palestine in 1946.

In an interview with Haaretz in 2015, he acknowledged being labeled a Holocaust author, but protested: "I am not a Holocaust author," which he deemed limiting, as if was writing "for those unfortunates."

Following his arrival in Mandatory Palestine, Appelfeld studied in the Ein Karem agricultural school and at Nahalal and following his military service earned a B.A. and M.A. in Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He began publishing poetry in the 1950s and published his first story in 1959. His first novel, "Ashan" ("Smoke"), was published in 1962.

His works published in English include "Badenheim 1939," "All Whom I Have Loved," "Tzili," "The Age of Wonders," "The Story of a Life: A Memoir" and "Suddenly Love." In 2015, a children's book that he wrote, "Adam and Thomas," appeared in English.

He was awarded the Israel Prize for literature in 1982 and was the recipient of many other awards. In 2013, he was shortlisted as a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize.

In 1957, at age 25, Appelfeld 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.

Asked by Haaretz cultural reporter Gili Izikovich how he felt at the time, he replied: "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.”

When Izikovich noted that he and his father had 20 more years together, he explained: "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.”

Appelfeld is survived by his wife and three children.