Aharon Appelfeld's The Story of a Life (Sipur hayim, translated from Hebrew by Aloma Halter) is probably one of the best books I've read about WWII written from the perspective of a survivor. I hesitate to call it a Holocaust memoir as Appelfeld is careful in his writing to not put such labels on his work. He writes eloquently and simply, in a sensitive yet never sentimental way. Although the title is The Story of My Life, really it is filled with many stories--recollections and impressions almost. Appelfeld writes about identity and memory and the need to find a language when his own history/his entire world had been stripped from him as a child. In his preface he tells the reader that the book is not meant to be a summary of his life as so much from the war years had been forgotten, fragmented or corroded. Rather he wanted to piece together again the different bits and give them shape and meaning.
Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, the Bukovina region of Romania (later becoming part of Ukraine) in 1932. He grew up in a German-speaking middle class household, an only child of parents who considered themselves part of the European intelligentsia. They were not religious, though his grandparents were. He relates stories of an idyllic early childhood when he would spend time with them in the countryside. He begins with his earliest memories and while he mostly follows them as they happened, he does move around in time filling in gaps and adding broad brushstrokes to his life. Each chapter is almost complete within itself but they are all interconnected in the end giving a view onto his life and world.
If you are the sort of reader who avoids books about the war, and I do know how difficult it can be reading about this period, Appelfeld is entirely accessible without ever overwhelming the reader with the sorts of descriptive imagery that war books tend to be filled with. That's not to say he doesn't write about painful memories and experiences, but he does so in a very matter of fact way. He had very little formal education growing up as he was only about seven at the time the war broke out. His mother was murdered early on, and eventually he and his father ended up first in the ghetto and then in a concentration camp. Appelfeld managed to escape and spent the majority of the war hiding in forests and fields, or living with peasants and country folk when he could and trying to blend in with the residents in the small communities to avoid detection.
"During the war I was not myself, but like a small creature that has a burrow, or, more precisely, a few burrows. Thoughts and feelings were greatly constricted. In truth, sometimes there welled up within me a painful sense of astonishment at why I had been left alone. But these reflections would fade with the mists of the forest, and the animal within me would return and wrap me in its fur. Of the war years I remember little, as if they were not six consecutive years. It's true that sometimes images surface from the heavy mist: a dark figure, a hand that had been charred, a shoe of which nothing was left but shreds. These pictures, sometimes as fierce as the blast from a furnace, fade away quickly, as if refusing to reveal themselves and again there's the same black tunnel that we call the war. This is the limit of conscious memory."
Being a child of war, and an orphan at that, Appelfeld's perspective is slightly different and perhaps a little unique than so many others. He learned to be silent and not draw attention to himself. He was often more comfortable in presence of animals than people, and at the end of the war he was once again uprooted and surely must have felt a huge sense of dislocation. Whatever normalcy there was in his life was again lost as he was placed in a transit camp in Italy and then eventually was taken to Israel.
Appelfeld was only fourteen in 1946 when he arrived in Israel. He was alone, had little education, viewed most people with suspicion and mistrust and had spent the greater part of the war living more or less alone. A diary he kept at the time was filled with what he calls a mosaic of words--in German, Yiddish, Hebrew and even Ruthenian. He was entirely adrift with no language or family or home. He became active in various youth movements doing agricultural work and had to serve in the army, which was somewhat disappointing as he didn't make a very good soldier--not having grown up in Israel and being much smaller and weaker than many of his contemporaries. But it was in the army that he began reading Hebrew literature.
By the time he entered the University of Jerusalem he was scrambling to fill in the gaps in his education. He had to cram many years worth of studies into just a few, but he was finally beginning to find his voice. He studied both Yiddish and Hebrew literature (Yiddish not being in vogue in Israel at the time). And he was beginning to write.
"Prose saved me from this sentimentality. By its very nature, prose demands the concrete. abstract emotions and ideas are not among things that prose likes. Only ideas or emotions that arise from something concrete can have a legitimate existence. One has to learn these basic facts very slowly, and I, with my minimal education, was even slower. Instead of learning to observe the body and its movements, I was drawn toward vagueness and dreams."
One of the most fascinating aspects of Appelfeld's memoir is reading about how he came to write. After the war it was mainly testimonies and accounts which were being published and which were accepted as "authentic expressions". "Literature was considered a fabrication" he writes. But Appelfeld was unable to bear witness in that particular way since so much of what he had experienced was lost.
"During the late 1950s, I gave up my ambition to become an Israeli writer and made every effort to become what I really was; an emigré, a refugee, a man who carries within him the child of war, who finds talking difficult and tries to speak with a minimum amount of words."
His first book, which he published in 1962 seemed to draw every form of criticism and every editor who looked at it saw a different flaw. What he was writing about and how he was writing was not deemed correct and everyone wanted to either cut things out or add to it.
"These editors overlooked the book's virtues and its authenticity. As a result, I also couldn't see these qualities; furthermore, I was convinced that everything I was told was true. It's strange with what ease we adopt criticism. Criticism that originates from within oneself can be destructive, but there's nothing as destructive as criticism that comes from others. It took me years to free myself from this and to understand that I, and I alone, can best steer my course."
Appelfeld did eventually find his voice, despite his experiences (or maybe because of them?), and has written more than a dozen works, many of them award winning. He calls literature "an enduring present" and tries in his books to "attempt to bring time into an ongoing present."
There is so much that is good and interesting about this memoir, I heartily recommend it. The library copy I borrowed will be going back rather dog-eared but I'll be removing the post it tabs at least. I was constantly going back to reread sections, and would happily reread the book. I didn't mean to go on quite so long about it, but there was so much I wanted to share. I'll be looking for more of his work now of course.
Thanks to Caroline for choosing it as part of her Literature and War readalong, you can read her thoughts on it here. Judith at Reader in the Wilderness has also written about it here. Next up is Richard Bausch's Peace.