IN 1940 a Polish Jew of 8 is put into a Ukrainian labor camp, from which he escapes and then hides in the countryside for two years. He joins the Russian army, and after the war makes his way through Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Italy to Palestine. He is 14. The boy was Aharon Appelfeld, and his wanderings are the source of Tzili, the third of this fine Israeli writer's novels to be translated.

If the Grimm brothers had described modern German terror . . . if Faulkner's Benjy Compson had lived through the sound and the fury of the Holocaust: these are the comparisons one needs to suggest the strange subject and estranged style of Tzili. Tzili Kraus is a feeble-minded Jewish girl abandoned by her family when "the soldiers" (presumably German) invade her "remote district" (perhaps Poland) in a year unspecified. Tzili knows she is 13, remembers a few rudimentary teachings of Judaism, recalls some facts about her merchant family--and knows almost nothing else she can't smell or touch or directly observe. It is through this mind, both lucid and severely restricted, that we gather the fear, suffering, achievement, and even comedy of survival, Tzili's three years of eluding private and mass death. If, as editors say, less is more, in Tzili least is most, for Appelfeld's self-imposed limitations of character and perspective give his tale an unusual emotional purchase and, surprisingly, a subtle cultural commentary.

At the novel's beginning, Tzili is a discarded object, overlooked in a pile of village refuse. Foraging in the fields and forests, learning her body, she bootstraps herself into the animal kingdom, and then gains marginal humanity as a slave of rural peasants, themselves slaves of greed and superstition. Appelfeld's subtitle is "The Story of a Life," but perhaps "Story of Life" would suggest more precisely Tzili's progress through eons of evolutionary time in the book's three years. An instinctual loner, she learns to care for and love another escaping Jew, a middle-aged man whose child she bears. Tzili learns to think, to use language, to distinguish among the values of the other refugees she joins in the trudge to war's and novel's end. Her transformation from thing to member of the wandering tribe is Appelfeld's counterexample for those survivors, inside and outside his book, who let themselves be reduced to less than nothing. Nothing to begin with, Tzili climbs to humanity in the worst of times and places.

Sentimentality is an enormous danger for such a story. Adults, especially writers, sentimentalize children. Appelfeld seems to record rather than create Tzili. Because she does not indulge herself with the adult melodrama of nostalgia or lost expectations, her responses to matters large and small are direct, appropriate, not exaggerated. Emotionally sound, intellectually innocent, Tzili has authority. She sees both the brutality and heartiness of peasants, the lechery as well as courage of partisans, suicidal Jews with survivor guilt and celebrating Jews without it, good merchants and bad messiahs. Eighteen years ago Jerzy Kosinski's supposedly autobiographical story of an adolescent wandering through the Holocaust--The Painted Bird--made him famous. Now, and next to Tzili, that book seems forced, innocence controlled not so much by history as by authorial manipulation. Appelfeld's story has instead the naive elegance of eyewitness accounts, unspoiled by ideology or literary exigency.

Hemingway once said that easy writing makes hard reading. The simplicity of Tzili--its folk-tale language, one-thing-after-another structure, and avoidance of complex thought--makes it a Holocaust primer, a novel that adolescents can and probably should read as an introduction, for it treats the before and after of the death camps without describing that central horror. But Tzili is also "hard" enough--subtle enough in its cultural materials-- for readers more familiar with Holocaust facts and fiction. Appelfeld likes to rub against the grain of stereotypes or trace their ironies. Anti-Semitism is directed against the stereotyped city male--educated, rootless, immoral--yet it is Tzili's impregnation by such a man that gives her reason to survive. Lusty, fun-loving women, both Gentiles and Jews, are Tzili's helpers along the way. Tzili finds that the rush for advantage can turn the folk against the Jews, the Jews against themselves. Zionism is a pompous voice on a loudspeaker as well as a delivering ideal.

Appelfeld's shaping irony is that Tzili survives because she isn't smart. Ignorant of German, she has the protective coloring of peasant dialect. In Appelfeld's other two novels, Badenheim 1939 and The Age of Wonders, the Jewish characters' obsession with German, the repository of high culture, deludes them and helps identify them for destruction. In Tzili a character says "There's no culture without language," but his loyalty to the grand phrases of civilization destroys him. Tzili's sensory vocabulary and earned wisdom are the saving alternative to abstraction and cultural pretense.

In both the highly praised Badenheim 1939 and in The Age of Wonders, Appelfeld examined pre-war Jewry with an almost anti-literary irony, yet in the holiday-notes style of the first and the dual narration of the second the artist's hand is always evident. In Tzili the sophisticated novelist absents himself, and in so doing presents the fundamental values only implicit in the other novels' satire. There are risks of telling a story "in all simplicity"-- dehistoricizing the Holocaust, muting its horror, losing experiential and novelistic texture-- but Tzili is consistent in its economies, authoritative, and, most importantly, original in its effects. When Tzili is read with Appelfeld's more explicitly literary novels, the reader sees and admires an author continually pressing his imagination to defamiliarize--make newly strange and affecting--a subject that must be retold again and again.