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by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
March 15, 2004

After being away for a couple of weeks, you pay attention to subtle changes that would have escaped notice if you had experienced them in the day to day routine. Simple things like the blooming of Israel's extraordinary crop of spring wildflowers that hadn't yet emerged when I left two weeks ago, and disturbing things such as the wilting wreaths and worn-looking, blue metal memorial candle holders piled up at the site of the #14 bus bomb across the road from my gas station.

Someone has pasted up pictures of the eight smiling people whose lives abruptly ended on that bus three weeks ago, and I relive the memory of seeing their corpses laid out in a row on stretchers, about to be covered with white plastic body bags.

As the day wears on, I go about various errands in the city and catch up with friends who uniformly have one thing on their mind---Arik Sharon's unilateral withdrawal plans. The speculation and analysis runs the gamut, but it's just after the 5 p.m news that yet again, our attention is diverted by another homicide bomb attack. This time it's not a busload of commuting senior citizens and high school kids that's the target of two killers, but the supposedly secure, impenetrable port of Ashdod, just south of Tel Aviv. Ten more dead Jews, and another miracle that prevents the flammable liquids and gases at the port from being ignited.

But, unlike in Madrid, there will be no million people out in the streets of Ashdod or Jerusalem tonight. Israelis have grown accustomed to the rising death toll and the all too familiar routine of the terror attack aftermath. The dreary acknowledgement that demonstrations no longer appear to make any impact on Israel's leaders is another deterrent.

Instead, in Jerusalem, social and cultural events go on as usual. The opportunity to meet and listen to a panoply of Jewish intellectual and cultural figures, without paying huge entrance fees, battling subways or spending hours on a highway is part of what makes living in Jerusalem so special. Most evenings there are lectures or classes given by any number of leading contemporary Jewish thinkers. It's author Aharon Appelfeld who's addressing an English-speaking audience tonight, three hours after the Ashdod tragedy. No one mentions it.

Appelfeld, 72, author of forty books, is a quietly compelling speaker. His talk does not have a title, and while he holds a sheaf of papers in his hand, he doesn't refer once to his notes as he recounts the astonishing story of his early life.

Now bald with a remnant of white hair and thick, rimless glasses, Appelfeld takes us back to his idyllic and assimilated early childhood in Czernowitz. The only child of cultured, wealthy parents, Appelfeld reminisces about the largely Jewish university town, that was then part of Romania. (Today it belongs to Ukraine.) "But we never mingled with Jews..we never used the word 'Jew,' " he says. All that changed in 1940 when Nazis occupied the region and along with their Romanian collaborators, rampaged from house to house murdering as many Jews as possible. Appelfeld's mother and grandmother were included, and soon, the eight year old and his father were driven from their spacious home into a room in the ghetto they shared with twenty others.

The inevitable ghetto liquidation took place, and father and son joined one of the death marches toward a concentration camp. Of the 2,000 Jews who started out, only 200 survived, recounts Appelfeld. Separated from his father in the camp, the young Appelfeld decides he's going to die anyway, so he might as well escape. Having just completed first grade, Appelfeld manages to fend for himself over the next three years by attaching himself to various marginal characters living on the peripheries of peasant villages. Horse thief and prostitute's errand boy are just two of the jobs he finds in his quest to survive. A stint as kitchen boy with the Russian Army takes him to Yugoslavia and then Italy, where he meets members of the Jewish Brigade who encourage him to leave Europe behind and head for Palestine.

Appelfeld arrives in the country as a thirteen year old in 1946. Completely alone, the lad who has already observed and absorbed so many facets of the human character in his young life, ends up on kibbutz where he studies Hebrew and works for his keep. It's here, as a deeply disoriented immigrant that Appelfeld finds his writer's voice. At the end of every lonely day, he transcribes onto paper a few sentences in Hebrew about his feelings and questions about his existence. "The papers became my friends," he recalls. "They became my happiness every day--and still to this day," he chuckles.

Perhaps those experiences explain the spare prose of his writing. At the end of the war, Appelfeld says, he was mute. He had avoided speaking with people for six years, because of the danger of his Jewish identity being discovered. No matter, Appelfeld, recounts, "the unsaid in art is more important than that which is said."

In Palestine, "I came with my experiences and a small, meaningless, strange story--and here was this heroic country," he continues. "I repressed my memories and tried to build a new personality." Ultimately, Appelfeld realizes that if you repress your memories "you live a superficial life, not a real life."

"You can't hide and be a writer," he says. Someone in the audience asks his opinion of Jerzy Kersinski, the eccentric Polish-born writer and photographer, author of The Painted Bird, which describes a story of a childhood similar to Appelfeld's. Kersinski never publicly acknowledged his Jewishness--as a result, Appelfeld says, he became a mediocre writer.

Appelfeld makes an intriguing observation about Israeli literature. The common Israeli experience, Appelfeld claims, is the immigrant experience. Even today, one out of every two Israelis is not native born. It's that disorienting experience that we all
share, says Appelfeld, "feelings are not absorbed in a proper way." Yet, because of the difficulty of immigrants to express themselves in Hebrew, even for those in the country many years, literature is almost exclusively in the hands of sabras. "But the real experience of Israel is the immigrant--he is the main hero," Appelfeld asserts.

Appelfeld considers himself fortunate that he writes in Hebrew. "It means you're directly bound to the common Jewish soul," he explains. Appelfeld considers himself a Jewish writer, not an Israeli writer. "I write about all kinds of Jews--they're all dear to me, and about hundreds of years of Jewish loneliness," he asserts.

"I feel myself a religious person," he says, "but I'm not speaking of God as a central figure." His observance of Jewish tradition is based on the idea that what was good enough for so many generations of Jews "is good enough for me." The only time he feels pious is when he writes about pious people. "Then, I'm totally immersed and feel totally pious," he explains.

Describing many of the characters in his books, Appelfeld asserts that he likes human weakness. "All the orphans, all the ill, all the insane came to Israel," he says with a smile.

In a final comment about the writing process, Appelfeld, who may be seen every day writing longhand in a Jerusalem cafe, tells his audience that "writing has nothing to do with ideas. It's the senses that lead to something. " Just like music and art rely completely on hearing and sight, literature "begins and ends with the senses." He describes his one return visit to Czernovitz, three years ago. The town is delapidated and neglected, it's Central European identity almost obliterated. "What can you learn from it--nothing," states Appelfeld. "We learn from things inside, not from the external. I coudn't find my parents there, but my longing for them, that's important. "

"It never starts with an idea--I have to trust my senses," he concludes.