"Are you all Jews here?" asks an old rabbi who has wandered into the Austrian summer resort town of Badenheim. It is about two-thirds of the way through Aharon Appelfeld's novel, and the characters are beginning to come to terms with the book's central question, although most of them probably consider it impertinent.
The people who come to Badenheim each summer for the music festival are Jewish, but not very Jewish -- not the Ostjuden who are being blamed for all problems. They do not deny their Jewish identity; most of them seem vaguely proud and nostalgic about the way of life they have left behind. Even those who don't understand Yiddish like to hear the old songs. But they are assimilated; they think of themselves as Austrian, and their profession -- artist, musician, historian, entrepreneur, even waiter or traveling salesman or prostitute -- is more important than their ancestry. Jewishness is merely a detail, not the central fact of life.
It is the summer of 1939 in Hitler's Europe, and Jewishness is about to become totally important, fatally important. But the people in Badenheim prefer to think of something else; they enjoy the fine weather, sample the excellent wares of the local pastry shop, spend hours at the swimming pool or the tennis courts, listen to the resident band and wait for the festival to begin. It is behind schedule, but that is nothing unusual.
The Sanitation Department is uncommonly active this season, not only checking the condition of public accommodations, but redecorating the town and making strange modifications: "They took measurements, put up fences, and planted flags. Porters unloaded rolls of barbed wire, cement pillars, and all kinds of appliances suggestive of preparations for a public celebration." In the middle of May, a notice appears "saying that all citizens who were Jews had to register with the Sanitation Department no later than the end of the month." Posters begin to appear: "Labor is our life . . . the air in poland is fresher . . . sail on the vistula . . . the development areas need you . . . GET TO KNOW THE SLAVIC CULTURE," and somehow the people in Badenheim begin to realize that a trip to Poland is in their future.
Poland takes on a legendary life in their minds -- for some, a new beginning; for others, a return to old roots; for all, a place where life will be different and, in some ways, perhaps better. "Here we have no life left," says Dr. Pappenheim, the entrepreneur of the music festival. "Here everything has become empty." Most people seem vaguely intrigued by the idea of Poland: "In Poland there are lots of Jews. The Jews help each other, you know." But their feelings don't matter much since the town has been barricaded, and there is no way out.
New people are being crowded in: "The new people were so feeble and withdrawn, they were like birds who had lost contract with the sky. They died silently, without crying out." They, too, are on their way to Poland -- those who survive.
"Badenheim 1939," the first book by Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld to be translated into English, is not exactly a "holocaust" novel, although to those who read it with hindsight the shadow of the holocaust looms everywhere. It is a story of people enjoying what they could of the last golden summer when it was still possible to pretend that monsters were not loose in the streets. The full, crushing weight of Nazi brutality is still veiled; there is polite talk of misunderstandings and irregularities that will be straightened out when the appeals board begins to function. Violence is so gradual as to seem almost gentle, or it is conveyed in symbols -- half-wild dogs skulking in the streets; fish dying in the hotel's small aquarium. When looting begins -- drugs stolen from the local pharmacy and the hotel's dishes and silverware hidden away in suitcases -- it is not the mysterious Sanitation Department that has done it, but the people themselves, the victims.
Although it is filled with ominous shadows that grow longer and darker as the story progresses, "Badenheim 1939" seems to be a story of optimism, of people who manager to avoid the ghastly reality that is looming before them and who find something positive in each new horror. But in reality it is a story of apathy and inertia. Those who are helpless try to ignore their helplessness: they complain about petty discomforts while the knives are bein sharpened for their blood. Those whose lives have been drastically changed try to preserve the old routines and pretend that nothing has happened. Those who are facing death cultivate the illusion that they are beginning a new life.
Although its immediate subject is Jews on the brink of holocaust, the emotional equation in this novel is universal. If a Jew is someone marked for death, there is a sense in which we are all Jews -- though we come to full awareness of this identity only gradually, and we all try to bury this awareness with visits to the pastry shop or the swimming pool. Appelfeld's spare, portentous style quietly underlines the universal dimensions of his novel, giving it already the air of a classic. Whether or not it achieves that status in the years ahead, it is certainly a novel of striking originality, a fresh treatment of a much-handled subject, a sensitive exploration of the metaphysical dimensions of horror.