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Interview: Aharon Appelfeld

Ann Parson

This interview found the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld at the end of an eleven-month sabbatical to the United States, most of which he and his wife and three children spend in the Boston area. During his stay Appelfeld was occupied lecturing, observing, writing (once he grew accustomed to his new surroundings), and arranging for the further translation of his work. Of Appelfeld’s six collections of stories, one book of essays, and six novels, all published in Hebrew, only two of the latter (Badenheim 1939 and The Age of Wonders)* and a few short stories have appeared in English. Not only are Mr. Appelfeld’s two translated novels small and sturdy–so, I discovered, is the writer. "Do you know what I look like?" he asked when we were making telephone arrangements to meet in front of Harvard’s Square’s Out-Of-Town News. "Short and bald." This humor is as much a part of Appelfeld as his intense somberness. He seems a quiet man and has a very melodic way of speaking. And when he’s seated across from you, wide-faced and big-eyed through heavy glasses, you sense–from his careful selection of words, from his reiteration of certain phrases, from his eyes always peering–that even if he could tell all, he probably wouldn’t: much of the past remains silent within him.

Parson: You’ve said that, as a writer, you "need the shadows and nuances" of Jerusalem to work in. It must be difficult–in Israel, especially in Jerusalem where you live–not to become entangled in the politics surrounding you. Are you conscious of trying to keep your art away from the noise of politics, or is that conflict a motivating force for you?

Appelfeld: You see, I’m a Jewish writer. I’m writing mainly about Jewish fate. Jerusalem, I would say, is the heart of Jewish history. So I cannot imagine myself being a Jewish writer and not being in Jerusalem. It is not a question of it’s noisy, it’s not noisy. It is not a question of politics even. I’m a Jewish writer, I’m living amongst my people, and I’m trying to understand the complex of Jewish existence. So where can a Jewish writer live?

Vanessa Redgrave was supposed to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last April to narrate Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex,, and, as you may know, it was cancelled–because of Redgrave’s affiliation with the PLO. Do you think a person’s art and politics should be divided this way?

I’m not dealing with politics. My real interest is people, life. This is my interest. The PLO is an enemy of the Jewish state. I would say it’s a tragic fight. If you want, it is a kind of big misunderstanding. But this is a kind of a show that a writer writes about in order to understand it: I’m trying all the time to understand it. But I’m not a politician. You see, I’m not a politician in my country; I’m not a politician outside. A lot of Israeli writers are politicians, I know, but I’m not.

How do you spend a typical day in Jerusalem?

I’m mainly teaching and writing, and I’m doing this every day. You cannot make a living from just writing. Our audience is a very small audience.

Are you the type of writer who keeps to a schedule?

I’m writing every hour I have time. Hebrew is a difficult language, and our tradition in writing is a very high tradition, to mention only the Bible.

You were born in 1932...

Yes, in Czernovitz, Bukovina. IT was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then it became a part of Rumania. And now it’s a part of Russia. I was born in a Jewish, what we call assimilated family, of intellectuals. And we were surrounded by Ukrainians.

Do you remember your early childhood vividly?

I remember it very vividly because it was a very hard time–the Holocaust, the concentration camp–so it’s more than vivid.

Your mother was killed by the Nazis in your hometown. How old were you when this happened?

Eight years old.

Do you remember your mother?

I remember her, but I would not say that this would be real, because in losing your mother in childhood, you are trying all the years to reconstruct her; so it probably would be a different mother than she really was. My feeling is that I remember her, but how much I really remember, this I cannot know. I was too young to be conscious.

What mother has your mind held on to?

It’s mainly a kind of mother that is in different books. She has different features. (Appelfeld laughs.) So really it’s mainly a reconstruction.

You and your father were deported to a concentration camp in the Ukraine when you were eight, and you were separated. Was that the last time you saw him?

We were separated and I had not seen him for twenty years. He escaped, he was in Russia, and then after twenty years I met him, not knowing each other.

You escaped very quickly from the concentration camp.

It was mainly by instinct I escaped, not any certain smartness. Then I was a shepherd. My face is less Jewish than your face. You see.

So you were able to hide.

Yes, I was blond then.

Those years of wandering, hiding when you were a small boy, remind me of Jerzy Kosinski’s book The Painted Bird. Were those years of wandering as terrifying as that small boy’s?

Yes. Children react in a different way than grown-up people. I was wandering for three years. There was no peace. The peasants, if they knew I was Jewish, they would have probably killed me. So I had to be very alert, very careful.

[In 1944 Appelfeld joined the Russian Army, becoming a junior cook and working in field kitchens in the Ukraine. After the war he traveled through Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and arrived in Italy, where he lived in a camp for displaced persons for several months.]

You heard about Palestine in Italy?

Yes. It was not clear to me at all. I had seen a lot of refugees.

At this time, age 13, what was your sense of self?

Very disoriented. Deeply disoriented. I’d never attended school in my life, just the first grade which I’d started but not finished. Knowing a lot of languages, but really not rooted in a language. My home language was German, but I’d spoken many other languages, of course. My grandparents, they’d spoken Yiddish. The maids in my home were Ukrainian, so I spoke Ukrainian. The regime was Rumanian, so I picked up a bit of Rumanian. And then I was in Russia and picked up Russian, then Italy and picked up some Italian. So I came with a bunch of words, different languages–but still very deeply disoriented. It’s taken many years for me to get oriented–who I am, to whom I belong. This was a very deep effort.

Had your parents tried to explain what was happening?

It was beyond words. What can you explain to a child–such a trauma. We were pushed in wagons, killed, pushed in wagons, like animals.

Your learning to read and write so late reminds me of Buckminster Fuller. No one realized, until he was in his teens, how nearsighted he was. Now he thinks that part of the reason he observes the way he does–in large forms, large blocks–is because of those many years of nearsightedness. In the same sense, what sort of effect do you think your not learning to read and write until such a late age had on the way you subsequently approached language on paper?

I cannot say, because I was disoriented for so many years. I came to Israel to a big refugee camp. Jews from all over Europe. Many refugees, many orphans. So it took many years to communicate–who I am, what I’m in Palestine when I wasn’t born there, where were my parents. In the big rush, I couldn’t understand it. It took me years to reconstruct myself as a person.

Do you have a sense now of how much those early years, paradoxically, turned you into an observer?

Yes, life was kind of a permanent attempt to understand myself, to observe the surroundings and to think about my parents and, because I was not born in Israel, to think about the country where I was born. There were all kinds of puzzles I had to solve. I was mute–never attending a school, never learning. Really, the first classes I attended were at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

When did you being to write seriously?

When I was at the university I began to write, but not being rooted in the language, not being rooted in the culture, this was more a kind of stuttering than writing. Writing means you are being somewhat conscious of what you’re going to do.

Were your first real writings short stories?

Yes–though mainly I began with some small lyrics, though I couldn’t count them as writing. I would not even count my first stories as writing. They were more repetitions, out of some biological sense.

Do you feel more at home with the short story or the novel, or is it impossible to say?

For many years I wrote only short stories, but then I felt the limitations of short stories. A short story is a piece in time, but sometimes too small to live it through–to give you the feeling of a stream you’re entering and living in, and getting out from. A short story wants to tell you a secret of the moment, an episode of the moment. A novel gives you more a piece of life. The last ten years I’ve spent mostly on novels. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. When I was young there was a hurry to do it and to finish it. Imagine writing a novel: it means that you stay with the same heroes, the same vistas for two years. Every day the same people–to sit with them, have their coffee, and all this–for two years!

How long did you spend on Badenheim 1939?

I first wrote it in a shorter version, but then I wasn’t satisfied with it, so I changed it. It took me about a year, a year and a half.

Are you so well organized that you start a book like that knowing every character? Or are you more spontaneous?

I begin with a very general scheme which after two months is something different. I’m changing it all the time. I have to work every day–it’s like weaving, you have to know all the threads. You know, I’m lucky that I’m writing in Hebrew. Hebrew is a very precise language, you have to be very precise–no over-saying. This is because of your Bible tradition. In the Bible tradition you have very small sentences, very concise and autonomic. Every sentence, in itself, has to have its own meaning.

You mentioned once that the German language repulsed you. How did you mean that–the sound of the language or what it stood for?

You see, it would be not only a paradox, it would be tragic, to write in the language of the murderers. Just to think about it is enough to stop it. I suffered as a Jew and I was trying to find my roots. My family were Jews, the history and culture of the Jews–naturally it brought me to Hebrew, the main Jewish language, from the Bible.

What is your main difficulty as a writer?

You see, first of all, to be a Jewish writer is a heavy obligation. My close family was killed. My natural environment, my childhood, my sweetest memories were killed. And so it’s a kind of obligation that I feel; I’m dealing with a civilization that has been killed. How to represent it in the most honorable way–not to equalize it, not to exaggerate, but to find the right proportion to represent it, in human terms.

That’s your main hardship, then.

Yes, I must keep to that obligation. I dislike the word mission, I dislike a writer speaking about missions, but my feeling is that I have to reconstruct not only my personal life, but also Jewish life–two hundred, three hundred years–and what does it mean? Who were these Jews living in European society, and why have they been exterminate? This is a question that I have to ask myself every day and somehow find the answers, not in generalizations, but in details.

The Israeli writer A..B. Yehoshua has written ". . . when you come right down to it, the phenomenon of ‘Jew’ is not an easy one to understand." Could you try to give a sense of what it means to be a Jew?

Generally speaking, it is always difficult to define life, death, human beings. Life isn’t easy to define; Jewishness isn’t easy to define. We are in the big categories. These areas are always pushing us into generalizations, you see. But to simplify —this is a people who lived for more than 2,000 years among aliens, and by being so different, and by being a minority, developed a kind of character that is very different from the character of the surroundings. Let me give you some concrete examples–a kind of neuroticism, a restlessness, a permanent alertness, a kind of insecurity. These elements were very deeply developed. This creates a character.

Anxiety, then.

Yes, because it’s all very deep-rooted. But it would not be enough to say that that is the only component of the Jew. Without a deep belief, without a deep philosophy, mysticism, you cannot got through it. So you see, from one side you have the character that is neurotic, anxious, and so on, but from the other side you have philosophy, religion, morals. And how were these two things combined? This is really the Jewish phenomenon. Being a minority, but still believing in your own values. And this is creating a lot of misunderstandings. I don’t speak about prejudices, though there are a lot of prejudices.

How do you perceive the Jewish population in America?

Jews in America are living a double identity, but it’s becoming less and less double. It’s becoming more American, less Jewish. I’m probably the first person you’ve met [Mr. Appelfeld says this playfully] who identifies himself as a Jew–who says in his first sentence, I’m Jewish, I’m a Jewish writer, I’m writing for Jews, I do not have any pretensions to understanding Americans.

You once remarked that Zionist ideology "is a piece of wishful thinking." Could you explain further what you meant?

The idea of Zionism was to collect and to bring all the Jewish people scattered through the world back to their homeland. This was the idea. And only a very small portion of the Jewish people came to Israel. This is a tragedy from the Zionist point of view, probably from the Jewish point of view, that the vast majority of Jews preferred to remain in their countries and not join the Jewish community. So, it was wishful thinking, it has not been realized.

The Zionist movement has been so involved in land struggles, territorial rights. This struggle certainly wasn’t meant to be a part of its original plan.

It was not and it is not. The Zionist movement began around a hundred years ago. Then Palestine was a waste–rocks and hills and sand. Very under-populated by Arabs. Then Jews came to Palestine slowly at the beginning of the century and established some villages and small towns. This was a movement first of all to rescue people from Russia and other countries, but this also was a spiritual movement–the revival of the Jewish identity, the Jewish culture, to connect again Jewish culture with Jewish history. It has never been a country ambitious to conquer land; in the Jewish mythology, this doesn’t exist. It is very clear, we are a minority surrounded by a hundred million Arabs, and naturally, such a big body of a hundred million makes us uncomfortable.

Are you in agreement with Prime Minister Begin’s hardline stance?

I grew up in the Labor Party, which is opposite to Begin’s party. His was not my style. But I have to admit this is not the same Begin of thirty years ago. He’s the first one–and this probably has to be repeated more–to have signed a peace treaty with Egypt, and this is a very important fact. I wish we could do the same with all the Arabic countries. He has been the person who has achieved peace and will probably do more.

Do you feel any hope that, as more and more generations are born in Israel, there will be an easing of the conflict?

I am sure of it. It will happen the same as it happened with Egypt. It will take time, probably a long time, but I am sure that the Arabs will recognize one day that three million Jews living on the coast of the Mediterranean cannot change their identity, cannot threaten them. They can get only benefits from Israel, and I’m sure that what happened with Egypt will happen with others, because madness also has limits. It’s a mutual interest, to live in peace.

So you are more optimistic than pessimistic about Israel’s future?

As a son of a very old people I cannot be pessimistic. Jews all over the world have suffered inquisitions, exterminations, all kinds–but they still exist. They are still living and writing in their language. It’s probably a miracle, but sometimes you have miracles. And you see, we are talking about American, European cultures. There is a deep symbiosis between Christians and Jews–I can’t see such a phenomenon just disappearing. This is a phenomenon that is so deeply rooted in Western civilization. This connection between Jewish culture and the Western population–this is the Western civilization.

A.B. Yehoshua has written, "You do not achieve peace from history." Do you think, as an artist, it’s more possible to achieve peace through art?

An artist has to be modest and to know his limitations. An artist is writing his books, and he’s trying to do his best to put his inside, his inspiration, his imagination, and probably his morals in his writing. What books are going to do? I don’t know exactly how much they do.

They keep the process going?

Yes, they keep the process going–but how much, how deep, and so on? There are moments in my life when I’m a great believer in the printed word, and there are moments in my life when I’m disappointed.<

Originally Published in December 1982 issue of the Boston Review

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