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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

Leslie Epstein
November 16, 2011
(Anton Novoselov/Flickr)
(Anton Novoselov/Flickr)

I would like to begin with two quotations from Sigmund Freud:

E.T.A. Hoffmann used to explain the wealth of imaginative figures that offered themselves to him for his stories by the quickly changing pictures and impressions he had received during a journey of some weeks in a post chaise, while still a babe at his mother’s breast.

What a child has experienced but not understood by the age of two he may never again recover, except in his dreams.

Many years ago I asked Aharon Appelfeld, the great Israeli novelist, why he did not write an autobiography—even though his best title, his only title, A Child of Our Time, had already been used.

“If I do,” he answered, “I will no longer be able to write my novels.”

The notion that the exploration of one’s own life, particularly one’s childhood, will drain the well of imagination is of course common enough. Call It Sleep and Midnight’s Children are among the greatest novels of the last century. That neither Henry Roth nor Salmon Rushdie, having re-experienced, having revivified, their boyhoods, could produce another work remotely as beautiful is enough to give anyone pause.

Nonetheless, the answer Appelfeld gave to my question—as he surely knows—is both true and insufficient. A more complex response lies in his small 1993 book Beyond Despair, which is as profound a meditation on the relation of memory to imagination as anything I know. Once, at Boston University, he gave a lecture based on one of its chapters. Afterward, my students stood together, not moving, not speaking, in the courtyard. “I can’t stop trembling,” said one of them, as I approached this little grove of human aspens. Holding the book now, I can’t help trembling myself.

Appelfeld, who survived a concentration camp as a child before immigrating to Palestine in 1946, begins by describing the equivocal relationship he and all survivors had with memory. The first task for all of them was not to remember. “Anyone who underwent the Holocaust will be as wary of memory as of fire. … People learned how to live without it the way one learns to live without a limb of one’s body.”

Naturally enough, among this remnant the need to think and write about what had befallen them could not be repressed. But how to do so? The disproportion between the events themselves and the means to express them was too great: “The sights were dreadful and immense, and words are frail and impotent.” The inevitable result was a kind of distortion, a falseness, a misemphasis. The testimonies and memoirs were written in haste, without skill, with no sense of proportion or introspection. In each a battle raged between revelation and concealment. Most were marked by “a search for relief” and not the search for truth. Moreover, in Israel there existed a sense of shame, a feeling of guilt, that exerted a constant pressure to celebrate brave Ghetto fighters and partisans and noble peasants who risked their lives to save Jews, rather than expose the overwhelming majority who were at best indifferent or actively tried to kill them.

But even worse than faulty or distorted recollections were those unfettered by personal experience at all. These writers of fiction were attracted to “the bizarre, to the exceptional, to the speculative and—far worse—to the perverted.” Appelfeld does not give an example, but I will: the Grand Guignol and inauthentic horror in The Painted Bird.

Do not think that Appelfeld exempts his own work from such criticism. On the one hand, “memory itself proved to be the enemy of my writing.” But when he turned to imagination, his poetry and fiction consisted mainly of sentimental excess and cries to God. Caught between a memory that failed him and an imagination he could not trust, he came to the turning point when he stopped writing about himself and instead focused on a Jewish girl with similar experiences. “Miraculously, as though with a magic wand, my compulsive memory was removed” and in its place came a redefinition of memory itself: not so much recollection, or thoughts that could be put in words, but certain sights, sounds, smells, colors, sensations, what, significantly, Hoffmann called “quickly changing pictures and impressions.”

Then, in the place of actual memory came the freedom to experience, or re-experience, what we can call privileged moments: something as simple, Appelfeld tells us, as a few twigs floating on the surface of a pond, the sun on them, the way they shiver in the wind and turn, and turn again, on the current. In such moments, and in their recollection, one may undergo a feeling of enchantment that Appelfeld calls “true memory,” or “inner memory,” or “a warm emotion.” (Here we should very much think of such moments, such recapturings—a madeleine in a teaspoon, an uneven paving stone, a few notes from a sonata—in Proust, who has been neglected as one of Appelfeld’s masters.) Once in possession of “inner memory,” Appelfeld was able to write not “what happened but what had to have happened.” That is say, his work, moved from history to art, not only to his Tzili, the Story of a Life but to all the other wonderful novels as well.


But we have yet to answer fully the question: why no A Child of Our Time? The answer may be in another Appelfeld book that, like Tzili, is called A Story of a Life. This is less an autobiography than what Appelfeld called it, “segments of contemplation and memory,” just as Beyond Despair is called “reflections and feelings,” or, elsewhere, “a series of sensations and images and above all emotions.” In that non-autobiography Appelfeld says what I think any sensitive reader might have deduced from his entire oeuvre: that, in fact, about those six years of war, “I don’t remember, and that’s the whole truth.”

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.”

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.

Leslie Epstein teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University, which he directed for 36 years. He is the author of King of the Jews and ten other books of fiction.

Leslie Epstein teaches creative writing at Boston University. His three Leib Goldkorn books were recently published as The Goldkorn Variations: A Trilorgy (no typo). His play King of the Jews runs from Oct. 28 to Nov. 18 at the HERE Theater.