THE STORY OF A LIFE

By Aharon Appelfeld

Translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter

Schocken. 198 pp. $23

In 1940 Aharon Appelfeld was 7 years old, living with his prosperous Jewish parents in what is now Romania. Life was good. He loved and respected his parents -- his mother's gaze "was filled with so much softness and tender solicitude that I feel it to this very day" -- and enjoyed the kindly attentions of relatives both near and distant. He was a smart little boy whose prospects seemed limitless.

Then -- in stories set in that time and place, there's always that "then" -- his world collapsed. A couple of years earlier "rumors were rife, and it became clear that we were trapped," and his father's efforts to move the little family abroad came to nothing. They were moved by Nazi troops into a ghetto, and then the worst thing happened:

"My mother was murdered at the beginning of the war. I didn't see her die, but I did hear her one and only scream. Her death is deep inside me, but more a part of me than her death is her reappearance after it. Any time I'm happy or sad I see her face. She's either leaning on the windowsill or standing at the doorway of our house, as if she's about to come toward me. Now I am thirty years older than she was when she died. Time hasn't added years to her. She's always young and fresh."

That passage, poignant though it most certainly is, doubtless will strike some readers as familiar. We've been here before. Memoirs of the Holocaust have become so commonplace that we are at risk of no longer taking them seriously, of saying, "Enough, already," to this seemingly endless stream of books about suffering, loss, death, survival and recovery in the teeth of the Nazi murder machine. At what point, some readers ask -- as I know from letters and e-mails I've received about past reviews of books on the subject -- do contributions to the history of the Holocaust cease to serve that function and become mere exercises in self-administered therapy?

The question is legitimate, but it does not apply to "The Story of a Life." Aharon Appelfeld is more than just a face in the (steadily diminishing) crowd of Holocaust survivors. He is a writer of genuine distinction who in his previous books -- works of fiction, most notably "Badenheim 1939" and "The Age of Wonders" -- transformed his own experience into literature of exceptional clarity and power. Thus, apart from its own merits, "The Story of a Life" provides the factual evidence upon which much of the fiction is based and deepens our understanding of this writer's work.

Appelfeld's books (not all of which have been translated into English) have been respectfully reviewed but don't seem to have made much of a dent on the American reading public. This is unfortunate, because they give us a view of the Holocaust -- before, during and after -- that is unlike any other. As he says in "The Story of a Life," he eschews the label of "Holocaust writer," indeed deeply dislikes it, because in his long apprenticeship as a writer he taught himself to be restrained about a subject that has (understandably) provoked many others to flights of emotion. His understated prose makes the Holocaust all the more real by refusing to melodramatize it; his matter-of-fact tone heightens, rather than diminishes, the horror.

It is difficult to read "The Story of a Life" without thinking of "The Painted Bird," Jerzy Kosinski's fictionalized account of his own survival in Poland. This is a comparison that Appelfeld presumably might not enjoy, not merely because Kosinski's book has long been the subject of controversy about its authorship and authenticity but because Kosinski, for all his irony and sarcasm, cannot always resist the overheated. But both books, though they come at it from different directions, are about the same subject: children in wartime. As Appelfeld writes:

"The years of war and the years spent wandering through Europe afterward were years when we children were surrounded by darkness. Life battered us from all sides. We learned to keep our heads down, and if we found shelter we would crawl toward it. We were like animals, though without their daring and aggressiveness. After every beating we would flee. We did not even know how to cry out."

During the war, Appelfeld recalls, "I was not myself, but like a small creature that has a burrow, or, more precisely, a few burrows." Imagine if you can this child, 9 years old when he is flung out on his own: "Only two years before, I had had parents. Now my existence was no more than what I saw before me." What he saw at this precise moment in the tale was a small house in which lived a woman named Maria. She was a whore, though the boy was too young to understand what she was up to. She was rustic and rough, but in her fashion she was kind, and for a while Aharon found shelter with her, in exchange for doing small tasks around the house.

Soon enough that ended; soon enough everything ended. For a time the boy lived and foraged in the forest, for a time he lived with peasants; both experiences "compelled me to be silent and alert." This does not seem to have been difficult for him, since "from my earliest childhood, I've had a tendency to approach both people and objects carefully, and with suspicion." Again, the similarity to Kosinski's nameless boy cannot be denied:

"During the war, I honed my sense of suspicion into a fine art. . . . People were always a sign of danger. I spent much of the war flat on the ground, listening. Among other things, I learned to listen to the birds. They are remarkable harbingers, not only of imminent rain, but also of bad people and wild beasts."

Remarkably, Appelfeld emerged from these long years of travail not merely alive but with a deepened appreciation of human decency and fallibility. He encountered his full share of cruel men and women, including perverts who "would seduce children and do painful things to them before letting them go," but he also met "some remarkable people who, amid the great confusion, comforted an abandoned child, gave him a slice of bread, or threw a coat around him." He saw the full range of human character: "During the war, people changed beyond recognition. Decent people who had run large companies would steal bread under the cover of darkness, and overnight honest merchants turned into enemies of their own children. But there were also people, mainly simpler folk, who came into their own, totally devoting themselves to others."

The war taught him an unexpected and valuable lesson: not to moralize about other people, their shortcomings and misdeeds: "On the contrary, I learned how to respect human weakness and how to love it, for weakness is our essence and our humanity." This knowledge seems to have sustained him as he made his way from Europe to what was then still Palestine; as he got, in Israel, the education that had been denied him during the war; as he became a respected teacher and a widely admired writer. Now in his early seventies, married with three children, he has led a significant life, one that most of us in the comfort of our own lives can only imagine, and then with little real sense of it. "The Story of a Life," in its honesty, its reticence and its clarity, gets us a bit closer.