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An Introduction to ‘Katerina’

In a note to his Ukrainian readers dictated before his death last year, Aharon Appelfeld explains the sources of his haunting novel of prewar Poland

Aharon Appelfeld
January 04, 2019
Photo by John Phillips/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Jewish families sitting in the sun during a visit to the park, Warsaw, 1938 Photo by John Phillips/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

This book is about what is inseparable from me, as inseparable as the profoundest feelings and memories. It recounts what is well known to me from my early childhood, what I lived through, the things to which I became attached …

I was born in Ukraine. When I was 9 years old, I was ensnared by the war in Chernivtsi. My mother was killed there. My father and I were thrown into a concentration camp. Shortly afterward we became separated, and my father and I never saw each other again. I was fortunate to escape from the camp, and that was the beginning of my endless wandering along the roads of Ukraine.

So as not to starve to death, I hired myself out to peasant women. For this one, I chopped wood and stacked it, for that one I carried water; for another one, I grazed cattle. From time to time I would throw caution to the wind and meander along remote country roads from village to village, joining a gang of vagabonds, who did not disdain begging and thieving.

Fair-haired and blue-eyed, I was practically indistinguishable from Ukrainian teenagers. I don’t know if anyone recognized that I was a Jewish boy, but at least no one said anything.

Ukraine is engraved in my memory and my heart. But perhaps my soul sinks into other recollections even more often than into those years of vagabondage, filled with unchildlike suffering and mortal danger: my parents’ house in Chernivtsi and a Ukrainian woman, my nanny. No, she was not the only woman; during my childhood years there had been a few, but all of them were distinguished by their goodness, care, and sincere affection. I loved them all equally, and their faces, voices, and actions have merged strangely into a single image that became Katerina in my novel.

All these women whom I remember since the age of 5, like my heroine, came to the big city from the countryside. They longed for their relatives and maternal legacy and told me a lot about them. I was so affected by these stories that their charms have not dissipated to this day. Thanks to these women, the Ukrainian village entered my life and consciousness for all time. Thanks to them, the Ukrainian language entered my soul—I learned it from them, and they learned Yiddish from me. Later, during the terrible war years, when I had to conceal my origins, the lively Ukrainian language that I spoke perfectly as a boy became a kind of shield for me, so I have the right to say that it is they, those women, who saved my life by covering me with the invisible wing of their maternal love, just like my heroine saved the sons of Rosa and Benjamin.

I did not hear the Ukrainian language for 50 years; I thought that I had forgotten it a long time ago. But then Oleh Mykytenko, the editor in chief of the journal Vsesvit [The Universe], came to Jerusalem. He and I sat and chatted. We were assisted by the translator Viktor Radutsky. He spoke to my guest in Ukrainian and to me in Hebrew. And suddenly a miracle occurred. Even before the translator had managed to interpret Mykytenko’s words, I understood them without anyone’s help. It was as though the Ukrainian language was slumbering in my soul, somewhere deep, deep inside, muted by others, but it had not died.

I could not help but write about them, those Ukrainian women whom I knew and loved from an early age.

That is how Katerina came to be.

Not everything in a literary work is open to rational interpretation. Occasionally, something inexplicable happens subconsciously, of which not even the author himself is aware. And in Katerina there are moments that are, let us say, unexpected to me myself. This work strikes some people as a parable. But I would prefer to emphasize that at the foundation of my novel is real life; a life that grows out of my childhood feelings and impressions.

And I could express one of these main, memorable feelings from my childhood, unforgettable to this very day, like this: An abyss separating me from these Ukrainian women, from their brothers and sisters, from their parents and sons, who are so dear to me—this cannot be. An eternal, blank wall that would impede human attraction, closeness, and mutual understanding cannot rise up between us. Having lived a long and difficult life, having miraculously survived the Catastrophe, I today cherish a belief in the Person and the conviction that between us there should be no wall of misunderstanding and hatred.

This is why I wrote Katerina.

I would also like to hear the voice of a non-Jew who would talk about the Jews; the voice of a person who is unbiased and benevolent, a voice not in thrall to stereotypes. And I “spoke” with the voice of Katerina, I spoke in her name, gazing at the world through her eyes. That is why the novel is written in the first person. I wanted not to tell a story about Katerina, but to give her the floor; to hear her out.

I did not attempt to turn Katerina into a Jewish woman, I didn’t “convert” her to the Jewish faith, the very same way that Katerina does not preach Christianity, to which she remains faithful until her last days. Everyone, as it is said, will live according to his own faith, but will treat his neighbors’ faiths with respect and understanding.

I tried to avoid the slightest idealization. Katerina is above all a woman; a woman of flesh and blood; a person who is subject to both passions and vices. She and her Ukrainian environment are far from being angels. But the Jews with whom she joins her life are also far from being angels. Let’s mention Sammy, who was the father of her child. He is a drunkard and an idler, and a person who places his own interests above everything else. Sammy can only bring grief and disappointment to those closest to him.

I tried to depict people in the complete fullness of their feelings and manifestations. Every person lives in his surroundings, within the framework assigned to him. At the same time, he does not manage to look at the life of the person next to him, learning and borrowing from that person and becoming enriched. Katerina managed to do this. Keenly observing Jewish life, conquering her internal fears and prejudice, stepping over established views, she suddenly discovered the heretofore unknown—to her—beauty and sincerity, severity and soulfulness of Jewish life in all its diversity: in family relations, in religious rites and holidays, in dishes, aromas, and the reverential attitude to traditions. And when her spirit opened up, Katerina absorbed that “other” which was revealed to her in a foreign people without however rejecting her own: her native language, native customs, origins, and enrootment in her native soil.

Katerina had a hard life, she had a difficult time with her mother and father. However, despite the pain, insults, humiliation, and lack of understanding, her connections with her parental home and her native land are strong and indissoluble. Following in the footsteps of Katerina, I looked for manifestations of humanity in people’s relationships with each other; I searched for the Person in the individual.

The following fact is noteworthy. When Katerina was translated into English in America and Europe, I was subjected to harsh criticism from positions that were completely unexpected for me. I was accused of idealizing Ukrainians and of treating my Jewish characters with excessive severity. In the opinion of my critics, the image of Katerina clearly did not correspond to the established stereotype of a Ukrainian—that of a pogromist, anti-Semite, or the helper of the Nazis in the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War. This criticism comforted me. I am convinced that we must learn to reject bias, clichés, and established opinions. Our view must not be overshadowed by idle talk. We must see the human essence where stereotypes have previously reigned.

Katerina has been translated into English, Spanish, Italian, and Norwegian [Editor’s note: as well as into Dutch, German, Russian, Romanian, Slovak, Hungarian, and French].

And now my heroine is returning home to Ukraine. She will finally speak her native language, which I, in seeking to acquaint readers in my country with Katerina, simply—let’s put it this way—“translated” into Hebrew.


As told to Victor Radutsky. Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk. Reprinted with permission of Victor Radutsky and Books-XXI publishing house. All rights reserved.

Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018) was born in Czernowitz. His work, which includes the novels Badenheim 1939, The Iron Tracks, and Katerina, has won numerous prizes, including the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Blooms of Darkness.

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