Aharon Appelfeld's first novel to be translated into English, "Badenheim 1939," was a volume of only 148 pages, which could be read in one sitting. Indeed, it demanded to be read in one sitting. "A cause for celebration," said The New Republic. "A small masterpiece," said The New York Times. "He has compelled form to express the formless, the void, the black night in which culture, art and civility serve only to betray us," said The Nation.
Appelfeld, a teacher of Hebrew literature at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, is in the United States for one year as a visiting scholar at Harvard. His second book, "The Age of Wonders," has just been published here.
It is snowing heavily outside and Appelfeld is reminded of his childhood in Austria. Nearly everything reminds him of his childhood. "The things that happened to me were nearly incomprehensible," he says. "I could never forget for a moment."
He was born in 1932 in Czernovitz, a tiny border town that was part of the Austrian empire until World War I, then part of Romania and now Russia. "It was a very small town, firmly assimilated into German culture," he says, frowning at the word assimilated. "I am not going to condemn the assimilated Jew, but it is tragic to lose your identity. You lose your dignity." Assimilation is one of his answers to the question of the Holocaust, a question that obsesses him.
He is short and chubby, almost completely bald, soft-spoken and gracious in manner. He wears a red corduroy shirt, khaki cotton pants and heavy winter boots and speaks quietly, almost in a whisper. There is no sense of bitterness in his manner.
"We were so much a part of the German culture that we thought the Nazis would bring us freedom," he says. "Berlin and Vienna were the symbols of culture: fine literature and music, beautiful women. We knew about Hitler but self-illusion was so deep . . . "
He was 8 years old when the soldiers came. The family was well-to-do: His father was a successful mill owner and they lived in a spacious house, he recalls. But it was summer and they were staying in their vacation home outside of town. Appelfeld remembers lying in bed with a cold when he heard shooting and crying and screams. "I was afraid and escaped into a field of wheat." He hid with an elderly Jewish woman overnight.
"In the morning soldiers called to us from bullhorns to tell us everything was all right, that we could come out of hiding, that the shooting was over," he says. Three hundred Jews, half the town's Jews, had been murdered. He was herded into a large garage, reunited with his father. "He told me my mother had been shot, but I couldn't believe it. I wouldn't believe it and I kept asking him over and over, 'Where's mother?' "
They were put on a train, pressed into a cattle car headed for the Ukraine. When they arrived, his father was taken away with the other men. Women and children were kept together. "Every day I would see people dying from the cold and hunger." He stops for a moment to light one of the Kools he chain-smokes and to collect his thoughts.
"I am trying to reconstruct this, all these years I have been trying to reconstruct this," he says. Appelfeld's wife Judith, whom he met when she was his student 17 years ago, brings out cups of tea and a dish of cookies. She says she is trying to adjust to the snow, and that the transition to America has been particularly hard on the children, two sons and a daughter. "My children would find my experiences incomprehensible," the professor says.
"I was only 8 years old, but so much older," he says. "I remember the snow, thinking I was going to die unless I could escape. It was evening and my impression was that the soldiers were sleeping. So I crawled under the barbed-wire fence and ran into a big forest. It was not a question of wisdom but of instinct -- I was like an animal."
He made his way to a nearby town and went from home to home asking for work as a servant, shepherd, anything. "But no one would open their door to me. So I went outside the village where the whores and -- how do you say? -- horse thieves lived." He became a servant for a prostitute, running errands for her, buying her cigarettes and food in town.
"One night one of her clients accused me of being a Jew. I protested. I said I was not a Jew. I denied it over and over again. But he was drunk and he made me pull down my pants to see if I was circumcised. I became very frightened and ran." He took up with some horse thieves, he says, but inadvertently allowed their booty to escape. "And then I had to escape, too."
Again, he was drawn to unsavory characters who did not question his religion. "Ordinary peasants would not take in a dubious child," he says. "If they learned I was Jewish they would have killed me."
Liberation came in 1944. The Russians returned to the Ukraine and Appelfeld joined the army. He was 12 years old and worked in the kitchen. "These were good times," he says. "It was dangerous but I was among friends. There were even some Jews." He traveled with the army through Eastern Europe. "I never had a formal bar mitzvah -- I became a man on the Russian front," he says, smiling for the first time in the conversation.
When the war ended in 1946 he joined a band of Jewish children who stole from local shops to obtain food. "It was the first time I heard about Palestine, a place where Jews could go and live in peace." But first, he went to Italy: "I stayed with other Jewish refugees in a camp. Some of them went to other parts of Europe, some to the United States."
Appelfeld next went to Palestine. "It was an illegal ship and we were arrested by the British," he says. There is no comment on the twists in fate, just recollections. "We were put into a refugee camp in Palestine." He stayed half a year, then was sent to a farm where he remembers working six hours a day. "At night there were lectures for two hours. But we were too old to learn. We were not able to be ordinary children. We had seen too much."
Two years later came Israel's war for independence. Appelfeld recalls the farm being surrounded by hostile Arabs. "We were 40 children and a handful of adults with no weapons, no guns," he says. "I thought we would be exterminated." But soldiers from the Israeli underground, the Hagganah, came to the rescue.
At 17 he entered the Israeli army. He was a soldier for 2 1/2 years. "And suddenly I tried to find myself, to come to terms with my feelings, my fears, the memories: Who am I? What am I doing? What will happen to me? I suddenly felt I had to make something of myself."
So he began to study on his own. He had only a first-grade education, but he spoke German, Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew. He began to read Yiddish literature and poetry and the philosophy of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He studied German writers like Kleist and Kafka, who were strong influences on his later writings.
"I was still a child at 20, with no ideological background, just a lot of pain and no way to deal with all these deep emotions," he says. Jerusalem's Hebrew University provided an outlet. "It took years to answer these questions. It could not be done on a primitive level. I needed the academic tools and my tools were very weak."
He studied Jewish philosophy. "These were my best years. I tried to absorb more and more knowledge. And still it took many years to find an expression to my experience. To create literature means you have to absorb very carefully your experiences. Memory is not enough. I needed to give it meaning."
He began to teach and to write. His first literary success was a book of short stories called "Smoke." "It's about Jews who smoke a lot." Why? "Smoke is reminiscent of the gas chambers," he says.
His later books returned to stories of ordinary Jews in small Austrian villages who were unaware of impending doom, falling sheepishly into tragedy. Books like "Badenheim 1939," a fantasy in which inspectors from the sanitation department mysteriously begin to put up posters of Poland and barbed wire fences and require the Jewish guests in a resort village to register in a golden book. Never is the Holocaust mentioned. "Sometimes fantasy is more real than reality," says Appelfeld.
When asked for his views on the contemporary world, he talks of "dark forces" at work within Western civilization. But when pressed for a meaning he returns consistently to examples of Nazi Germany, of anti-Semitism and the assimilation of the Jews. Yet he will not judge.
"I am not a preacher. I am not a politician. I have no mission. I am only a writer trying to explain the dark forces at work. I am just trying to understand the depths of this phenomenon. "
Non-Jews, too, he says, see themselves through the experiences of his novels. "It has been a surprise to me that I am so well-received, for example, in Italy where they think my books are about the decline of Western civilization. But I am a Jew. My experience, my pain is Jewish. And I am writing only about Jews.
"It is too simplistic to say Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves. I would not have told them to pick up guns and defend themselves. They were innocent people, ordinary citizens who paid their taxes and believed that everything would turn out well in the end," he says.
And has he finally come to terms with his past? "I would say yes, but with a past like mine, there will always be unsolved questions. I am building the pieces of my past from the nightmares that have been chasing me, because if I don't I will be persecuted by the past."