April 5, 2012 Leave a comment
By Rob Packer
There were no words; the ones left over from home sounded hollow. Sometimes a man would appear and words would flow from his mouth. But the words he used were from before the war, and they sounded like coarse scraps, devoid of all taste.
Language, words and their meanings are not just the building blocks of a writer’s metier: they define us as humans and without them there can be no writing, no story telling, no communication.
Wordlessness lies at the heart The Story of a Life by Aharon Appelfeld (1932—), one of Israel’s leading writers. In the book, he tells his author’s childhood in Czernowitz* in Bucovina and his experiences during the Holocaust. Appelfeld spent part of the war hidden with Ukrainian peasants and two years hiding in forests. Later after the war, he moved to Israel as an orphan, “who’d lost all the languages he had spoken and was now left without language”.
If language defines us, Appelfeld had to reinvent himself on arriving in Israel. His grandparents’ Yiddish was “the language of the persecuted” and “had become a symbol of sloppiness, weakness, and the Diaspora”. His and his mother’s native language, German, was problematic for the opposite reason and his emotional association between German and his mother: “My mother and her language were one and the same. Now, as that language faded within me, it was as if my mother were dying a second time.” But Hebrew, the language of Israel and the language that Appelfeld would eventually use as a writer, was no easier and resulted in “a memory that had been eradicated and a soul that had been reduced to superficiality”.
For all he explores it, Appelfeld’s memories of the war are always difficult, never complete. For this reason, I hesitate to use the typical classifications of autobiography or memoir: the book rather feels more like auto-archaeology. Often he simply doesn’t remember:
Sometimes I felt that it wasn’t I who was in the war, but someone else, someone who was very close to me, and that he was going to tell me what exactly occurred, for I don’t remember what happened or how it happened.
And collective memory of the war in Israel is equally fraught and I found it painful to read where the author recounts Holocaust survivors “confronted—even harassed—by all kinds of bluntly rude questions: Why didn’t you resist? Why did you let yourselves be led like lambs to the slaughter?”
Books that deal with the Holocaust are never easy to read: the horror and disgust will never go away—nor should it. In The Story of a Life, much of the horror Appelfeld’s childhood self has failed to remember; but our own collective memories are still there to fill in the gaps. This makes it little comfort not to be told how the author’s parents die, and the first chapters that describe—in particularly beautiful prose—“the peacefulness and the tranquillity” of a child’s pre-war innocence become tinged with sorrow, culminating in the family’s awful realization in 1938 that they are trapped in an increasingly anti-Semitic Romania.
The book does have some weaker aspects in Appelfeld’s development as a writer, where he mentions friendships with other Israeli writers and references his previous books—past a few names I know relatively little about Israeli literature, so this might not the best introduction. However, none of this detracts from the uniqueness of Appelfeld’s story and the author’s own defiantly individual voice.
Aharon Appelfeld, The Story of a Life, Hamish Hamilton 2005
* Cernăuţi, Romania then and the same milieu as the poet, Paul Celan; Chernivtsi, Ukraine today.