Aharon Appelfeld, literary giant who gave vivid voice to Holocaust, dies at 85

Winner of multiple literary awards, the prolific Appelfeld published his most recent book just three months ago

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, who died at the age of 85 on January 4, 2018. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, who died at the age of 85 on January 4, 2018. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel’s most prolific and talented writers, who brought forth a rich library of Holocaust fiction, memoirs and essays in 47 books, died Thursday. He was 85.

His most recent book, the romance “Perplexity,” was published just three months ago, in September 2017.

A winner of multiple literary awards, Appelfeld was the recipient of the 1983 Israel Prize for literature and the 1989 National Jewish Book Award for fiction, and in 1997 was appointed a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Appelfeld wrote his fiction in Hebrew, a language he didn’t learn until he was 13 and had arrived in pre-state Israel, following harrowing escapes and painful experiences in Ukraine, Russia and Europe during and after the Holocaust.

Much of Appelfeld’s fiction was based on his own life, transforming memory into fiction, as he told The Independent in a 2012 interview.

A portrait of the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90

“I’m not writing memoirs — I’m using pieces of my own experience,” he said.

His first book translated into English was “Badenheim 1939,” still part of the syllabus in many Holocaust classes, and like many of his later novels, a short, sharp metaphor of the events of his life, focused on Jewish life in Europe, and often vividly evoking the Holocaust without referring to it directly.

Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (Romania between the wars, and now Ukraine), to deeply assimilated parents who thought of themselves as Europeans, and not particularly Jewish. His grandparents were observant Jews whom he loved to visit, farmers with a synagogue on their own grounds.

That idyllic childhood came to an end in 1940, when the Romanians took over his town from the Soviet army, and his mother was murdered. Appelfeld and his father were deported to a German concentration camp, where they were separated and from which Appelfeld escaped and went on the run, a wild boy on his own in the Ukranian forest.

He wrote in his books about being a child alone in the world, picking fruits to eat, finding shelter to sleep, and being adopted by Ukranian criminals who didn’t know he was Jewish and treated him like a slave, though allowing him to survive. He later met a village prostitute who gave him shelter for five months, and who later became a character in “Blooms of Darkness.”

Appelfeld spent some time in the Soviet army as a cook, and after the war, ended up in a displaced persons camp in Italy before immigrating to pre-state Israel in 1946. He was just 13 at the time, though his experiences and the things he had seen had aged him prematurely.

Some subsequent phases of his life were absurd for a boy who had survived on his own since the age of 9. He went to a farm school, a typical transitional experience at the time, where, he wrote, “they trained us to be peasants.”

Appelfeld found it hard to be surrounded by kids his own age, forced to speak after so many years on his own in nature, in silence. The motifs of silence, muteness and stuttering run through many of his works.

In Israel, Appelfeld unexpectedly found his father’s name on a Jewish Agency list of survivors, a miracle so unexpected and emotional that he never was able to write about it. But he wrote of many other things, completing his studies at Hebrew University and starting with short stories before progressing to novels.

He struggled to learn the rejuvenated Hebrew of the nascent State of Israel, writing later that he used the dictionary and copied out parts of the Bible, starting with Genesis and moving from chapter to chapter, book to book. It was an experience that ultimately enriched his writing and thoughts.

He wrote about his family from a location and place that was far removed from the vistas of his childhood.

Once he was living in Jerusalem and writing in cafés — a habit that he kept up for the rest of his life, and that made him feel close to his hometown — he took on literary mentors, such as S.Y. Agnon and Haim Hazaz.

S.Y. Agnon, the only Israeli author who has ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature, published his first novella a century ago. (photo credit: Courtesy Agnon House/JTA)
S.Y. Agnon. (Courtesy Agnon House/JTA)

“Only in a Jerusalem café do I feel the freedom of imagination. That’s my starting point. That’s where I depart from and it is to there that I return,” he wrote in Tablet.

His jottings, including those on napkins and scraps of paper, as well as his notes, books and manuscripts, are in the archives of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he taught for much of his career.

He was married to Judith, an Argentinian immigrant, with whom he had three children, and lived in Mevasseret Zion, just outside Jerusalem.

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