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
The language they had once so admired spoke the words that ordered them to the pits. Indeed, they were to be obliterated because of the one thing they decided they would not be. Thus did it come about that it was not they but Heinrich Himmler who decided who was and who was not a Jew.
And yet, just as the child who had lost the paradise of his childhood was able, through the capacity to wonder and the practice of his art, to regain it, so too the Jews, who had been living for a century in a kind of purgatory, had the opportunity to glimpse what had been lost. Reduced to nothing, to the beast, to one’s “naked Jewishness,” they had to undergo an intense spiritual suffering more painful, perhaps, than the physical torments they were forced to endure. Questions, long ignored, had to be asked: Who am I? What is a Jew? Where have I been? Where am I going? Who are my people?
Above all came the recognition of the falseness of the very thing they had built their lives on: the perfectibility of man, the march toward progress, the replacement of an ancient, primitive faith by a new religion of reason. Of a sudden they were confronted by something altogether new: questions that reason could not answer. As the guard at Auschwitz said to Primo Levi: Hier ist kein Warum. “Here there is no why.” In brief, it had become impossible to deny the existence of evil. What Appelfeld calls the Satanic Hand had risen to strike “at the central pillar of the Ten Commandments”—and, I would add, at the giver of those commandments, at the very idea of God and the people who had conceived him.
On the verge of physical extinction, the Jews now had, in grappling with these questions, a chance to return from what had been their spiritual extinction. Here was a chance to grope their way back to essential things and to some sense of their lost collectivity, even, perhaps, to some sense of their unity—not only with those living and dying now, but with their lost ancestors.
Some on the lip of the grave underwent a turning from the beast in man, a realization that one’s very Jewishness, the cause of their death, offered as well the chance of rebirth: Very well, if we must be Jews, then let us be Jews. For others, the wanderers, those who did not fall into that pit, that same inner sense of Jewishness offered a glimmering, a sparkle of light, what Appelfeld, not surprisingly, calls “a kind of contact with one’s parents.” But this time we do not speak so much of one’s mother but the mother’s mother, the father’s father, the grandparents, sunk in melancholy but preserving scraps of Yiddish, of customs and beliefs, of mysticism, Hasidism, kabbalah, the tribal past.
These wanderers moved in the same world as the 10-year-old boy—that is, a world of trees, roots, grasses, the warmth of animals, the sky. Here they could experience what is at the core of their own and every religion: wonder for its own sake.
As I said, the capacity for wonder, the openness to enchantment with the world, is a gift. Just as Aharon Appelfeld’s mother gave him as his inheritance the certainty of having been loved, so too the Jewish people, in spite of themselves, and for all their stubbornness, came to re-experience what they have always known but often forgotten: that they have been chosen and dearly loved by God.
This cycle of attachment to things of the world and enchantment with that world, spiritual extinction and re-awakening, did not end with the Holocaust, just as it did not begin when the Jews danced around the Golden Calf. Israel now is no different—and how!—than Israel then.
Look at that second quote from Freud. Perhaps we can say that it is not merely the infancy of the child, the wondering boy, that he refers to but rather to the infancy of a people. The dreams that bring us back, those glimmerings and illuminations, are to be found in the works of Aharon Appelfeld. Each one of them stands as a bulwark against the backsliding, the stubbornness, the failure of his people; in each we can sense Appelfeld at his task: “turning the experience of the Holocaust into a spiritual element in life.”
Henri Matisse once said that the great thing about art is that no matter what the vicissitudes of the artist’s life, no matter what sufferings and privations he had to endure, when he returns to the canvas the sunflower still stands there before him, just as he had left it, awaiting completion. So too do the floating twigs on the pond and the afternoon shadows on the Carpathians. So do our parents and their parents and their parents, too, still alive, coexisting side by side with the images of our childhood, with its early sorrows and many joys, that we carry undamaged within.
This is adapted from a lecture delivered at the International Conference on the Life and Work of Aharon Appelfeld, held at the University of Pennsylvania on October 26 and 27, 2011.
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