Aharon Appelfeld is perhaps one of Ukraine’s most famous writers, yet he is not widely known in the land of his birth. A native of Chernivtsi, he died in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, a year ago, at the age of 85. He left a body of literature that spanned decades—memories of a tranquil childhood lived in the bucolic Bukovynian countryside, harrowing years of survival during the Holocaust, and the struggle to adapt to and build a new life in the newly founded State of Israel. Several of his dreamlike, densely narrated books—including Katerina and A Story of a Life—are set in what is now Ukraine, and the sights, sounds and smells of his birthplace are present throughout his writings, providing insights into a vanished land and time.
Born on Feb. 16, 1932 into a prosperous secular Jewish family, Appelfeld recounted a version of his idyllic childhood in his memoir A Story of a Life. He often spent time with his grandparents, both observant Jews, in a house in the country staffed by Ukrainian maids, took long walks with his mother, and visited his grandfather’s synagogue. The war shattered this life when he was 9.
Appelfeld’s mother and grandmother were killed when German and Romanian forces retook Bukovyna, which had been part of Romania after WWI and had been annexed by the Soviets the year before. He and his father fled to Chernivtsi (then known as Czernowitz), where they were interned in the ghetto. They were then transported east to a forced labor camp in Transnistria, where father and son were separated. Appelfeld escaped the camp and fled into the forest. He was adopted by a Ukrainian criminal gang, and then found refuge in the house of a prostitute.
When the Soviets retook the area, Appelfeld became a cook’s aide in the Soviet army. He then made his way to Italy. In 1946, he succeeded in making his way to Mandatory Palestine two years before the founding of the State of Israel. In his lengthy career, he penned more than 40 books in Hebrew, a language he learned only later in life, and won a host of prestigious prizes, including the Israel Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Prix Médicis.
In the obituaries that appeared after his death, Appelfeld was described as being “haunted” by the Holocaust and called its “foremost chronicler” by giving the Shoah a “vivid voice.” Yet in his works, the daily horrors of the Holocaust are muted; the traumas lie in the background. One is immersed instead in the broad Jewish experience before, during, and after the Holocaust.
Appelfeld’s experiences shaped novels where the writing is not linear and historical detail is often absent. When we met at his home on a sunny July afternoon, I asked Appelfeld about this, particularly in relation to A Story of a Life, where he described his miraculous survival in the Ukrainian forest and life thereafter.
“Because I was so young … it’s more imagination,” Appelfeld said regarding the absence of much concrete historical detail in his writing. “I’m not a historian. I speak about feelings, sensations, and imagination. This is my work. I cannot write fiction strictly affiliated to historical or chronological detail. This is impossible. I write because it’s a form of a lower-level therapy to create something meaningful. I’m not writing chronology.”
Appelfeld said the Ukrainian gang who adopted him—he earned his keep by stealing for them—did not know he was Jewish because “I was very blond with blue eyes and spoke Ukrainian quite well, a Ukrainian that I have forgotten.”
Looking back so many years later, how did he feel about those individuals or Ukrainians in general? After all, in A Story of a Life, Appelfeld described his despair that his Ukrainian nyanka (nanny) disappeared at the time he needed her most, as the war erupted.
“I was a child, everything was frightening. People were frightening, too. But when I was with them, they gave me food, so I survived. But I did a job,” he said.
Although he was too young to understand the societal divisions between Ukrainians and Jews, Appelfeld said “it was never, let’s say, a love relationship, but my grandparents and my parents spoke with them. Of course, they were never invited into our home, and we were not invited.”
What did remain with him, however, is the apathy shown by villagers when the Germans and Romanians entered his grandparents’ village in 1941 and went on a killing spree.
“They shot the Jews. They went from home to home and shot the Jews. My mother was killed, and my grandmother was killed, and a lot of Jews were killed. What astonished me is that no one in the village came to help us. And we left the village with no words of, you see, ‘Take a piece of bread, take the mamalyga’…”
Interrupting his thought, Appelfeld asked, “You also say mamalyga?”
Should Ukrainians be held accountable for not helping their Jewish neighbors? I asked.
“I don’t like these generalizations,” said Appelfeld. “No. They were in our home, there were two maids, two Ukrainian maids. And they loved me very much. They used to bite me. Small bites. … Their family was in another village. But they used to play with me. It was when I was in my grandparents’ home, in the village before the war.”
Like many other Jews after the Holocaust, Appelfeld arrived in Mandatory Palestine alone.
“There were very few families. People were remnants. Remnants. … It was better than what happened in the war years. … I was in a kibbutz. There was work in the fields and enough food. Everyone had shelter.”
Yet the land where Appelfeld would live out the rest of his life did not feel like home. “A person who lost his first home cannot replace it with another,” he said. “My first home. … I do not live there, I don’t want to call it my home, I want to call it my lost home, because my home means that I am living there. It is my lost home. I’ve lost many things.”
Instead, Appelfeld said, Israel was “a kind of substitute home.” Appelfeld said it was possible to feel an allegiance to two places: to the place where he was born and where he lived.
Appelfeld wrote regularly, and let his novels sit in a drawer for two or more years. Then he would take them out and begin “writing and rewriting.” He always wrote by hand. “I like to feel the pen and I like to feel the paper,” he told me. “A computer is like loving a woman through something.”
His final novel, Perplexity, was published in September 2017, just three months before his death on Jan. 4, 2018.
Ukrainians have a chance to become better acquainted with Appelfeld now that Katerina has been published by the Chernivtsi-based publishing house Books-XXI. The novel tells the story of a Ukrainian servant who works in a Jewish home and eventually identifies with the Jewish people. The inspiration for the novel were the Ukrainian maids from his childhood “who loved me very much as a child,” said Appelfeld.
“Hlopets. They would call me hlopets. Krasyvii hlopets.”
Boy. Beautiful boy.
Read Aharon Appelfeld’s introduction to the new Ukrainian edition of Katerina here.