Child of His Time
Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld, Israel’s greatest living writer and author of the new Until the Dawn’s Light, retains his capacity for wonder
How, after all, could the adult not succumb to the mental annihilation of amnesia, since it is the one way of keeping the secret that, once revealed, would have meant the physical annihilation of the child?
How, aside from this self-forgetfulness, was the secret kept? How did this boy—alone in a forest, in winter, in summer, surrounded by those who wished to kill him—survive? I once asked him that very question, and he said that through all those years he knew that his mother was waiting for him. At the same time, he understood all too well that she had been shot down in the streets of Czernowitz. How could two such incompatible things—belief and knowledge—coexist? Well, there are certain things that, once experienced, never die. Think again, please of, E.T.A. Hoffmann, a babe in arms. What he claimed—that all his adult work derived from an infantile experience—is no less an absurdity. But let us try to imagine what such an excursion must have been like: first the horse, its brown, sweating rump, its smell, its constantly bobbing head; the shouts of the horseman, the crack of his whip, the constant clatter of hooves on cobblestones; the light winking down from the leaves of the trees, the pale faces of those who stood at the side of the road; and always the sensation of being held in the mother’s arms and at the mother’s breast.
Now all of us have been expelled from this paradise and thus live under the threat of what Appelfeld fears is “spiritual extinction.” How is paradise regained? The answer is found in what is perhaps the most important word in this writer’s vocabulary: wonder. By this I do not mean merely the remembrance of things past, the grown man’s inextinguishable memories: his own mother in her print dress; his father handing him an ice cream cone, swimming with him in the river Prut; the purple light on the Carpathians; Grandmother; Uncle Felix; strawberries; strawberries with cream; the candles in a darkened synagogue.
No, what Appelfeld means by wonder is the capacity to re-experience and, through art, recreate the emotions associated with such enchanted moments, moments when one feels connected, or reconnected, to all of creation. This oceanic feeling is ultimately a gift from God, and it is not given to all: only to those who—always, always in a mother’s arms—possess the certainty of having been loved.
Everything I’ve said thus far has been derived from the six-page introduction to Beyond Despair. The rest of the book, including the well-known conversation with Philip Roth, describes a second lost paradise, another kind of connectedness: oneness with the Jewish people.
Appelfeld begins with a long passage from Kafka’s letter to his father. In it, the son famously complains of being bored in the synagogue, save for when the “Ark of the Covenant was opened, which always reminded me of the shooting galleries where a cupboard door would open … whenever one hit a bull’s eye: except that there something interesting always came out and here it was always just the same old dolls without heads.”
Kafka’s father is of course representative of the post-enlightenment, Austro-Hungarian—and more than Austro-Hungarian—petit bourgeoisie, with its belief in progress, human goodness, reason, and materialism. This class also produced the modern Jew, with his neuroses and his self-hatred, so productive for art and science and business and invention, but so “poisonous … to the individual Jew and to his entire people.”
Here is one way of seeing Appelfeld’s work: It is the same sort of letter of reprimand to the Jewish nation as the one Kafka wrote to his father. After all, did he not see in the generation of his own family the lure of modernism and the isolation of the generation of the grandparents, who were left with nothing but “melancholy resignation”? Czernowitz was no backwater: Its Jews strove to be Viennese.
Now just as with Kafka, Appelfeld’s many letters to the assimilated Jews are filled always and everywhere with different forms of irony. But the central irony, of which all the others are merely tributaries, is this: The Jews, so eager to deny their own past and their own tribal identity, were brought face to face with the very thing they wished to escape. Satan likes jokes; thus the Jews, who had turned to the West, were then sent to the East. Stripped of their clothing and property and accouterments, not to mention their beliefs, they then “encountered to their astonishment, the ghetto Jews, Yiddish Jews, whom they had attempted to ignore for so many years. The hand of Satan had brought them to the very place they wished to flee.”
Philip Roth’s legacy of writerly narcissism left a generation of young novelists with the wrong idea of what makes great literature