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Aharon Appelfeld

Walking the Way of the Survivor

Really enjoyed this interview in the NY Times Book Review that I found in my archives, from 1988! WALKING THE WAY OF THE SURVIVOR: A Talk With Aharon Appelfeld, by Philip Roth.

Read the full article here:

From the article, I've selected the parts that stood out to me. My own notes are in italics:

The arduous journey that landed Appelfeld on the beaches of Tel Aviv in 1946, at the age of 14, seems to have fostered an unappeasable fascination with all uprooted souls. . . Appelfeld is a displaced writer of displaced fiction, who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own sensibility. . . .As unique as the subject is a voice that originates in a wounded consciousness pitched somewhere between amnesia and memory, and that situates the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history.

Appelfeld: I discovered Kafka here in Israel. He spoke to me in my mother tongue, German, not the German of the Germans but the German of the Hapsburg Empire, of Vienna, Prague, and Chernovtsky, with its special tone, which, by the way, the Jews worked hard to create.

. . .Behind the mask of placelessness and homelessness in his work, stood a Jewish man, like me, from a half-assimilated family, whose Jewish values had lost their content, and whose inner space was barren and haunted. The marvelous thing is that the barrenness brought him not to self-denial or self-hatred but rather to a kind of tense curiosity about every Jewish phenomenon, especially the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Yiddish language, the Yiddish theater, Hasidism, Zionism and even the idea of moving to Mandate Palestine. This is the Kafka of his journals, which are no less gripping than his works.

My real world was far beyond the power of imagination, and my task as an artist was not to develop my imagination but to restrain it, and even then it seemed impossible to me, because everything was so unbelievable that one seemed oneself to be fictional.

At first I tried to run away from myself and from my memories, to live a life that was not my own and to write about a life that was not my own. But a hidden feeling told me that I was not allowed to flee from myself, and that if I denied the experience of my childhood in the Holocaust, I would be spiritually deformed.

It is generally agreed, to this day, that Jews are deft, cunning and sophisticated creatures, with the wisdom of the world stored up in them.  But isn’t it fascinating to see how easy it was to fool the Jews?. . . Their blindness and deafness, their obsessive preoccupation with themselves is an integral part of their ingenuousness. The murderers were practical, and they knew just what they wanted. The ingenuous person is always a shlimazl, a clownish victim of misfortune, never hearing the danger signals in time, getting mixed up, tangled up and finally falling in the trap. Those weaknesses charmed me. I fell in love with them. The myth that Jews run the world with their machinations turned out to be somewhat exaggerated.

Assimilated Jews built a structure of humanistic values and looked out on the world from it. They were certain they were no longer Jews, and that what applied to “the Jews” did not apply to them. That strange assurance made them into blind or half-blind creatures. I have always loved assimilated Jews, because that was where the Jewish character, and also, perhaps, Jewish fate, was concentrated with greatest force. (note: This is what is so fascinating to me about the Mendelssohns, Fanny van Arnstein, Heinrich Heine, and Rahel Varnhagen, among the many other converts I have studied)

The need, you might say the necessity to be faithful to myself and to my childhood memories made me a distant, contemplative person.

The non-Jew was frequently viewed in the Jewish imagination as a liberated creature without ancient beliefs or social obligations who lived a natural life on his own soil. The Holocaust, of course, altered somewhat the course of the Jewish imagination. In place of envy came suspicion. Those feelings which had walked in the open descended to the underground.

What has preoccupied me, and continues to perturb me, is this anti-Semitism directed at oneself, an ancient Jewish ailment, which, in modern times, has taken various guises. I grew up in an assimilated Jewish home where German was considered not only a language but also a culture, and the attitude toward German culture was virtually religious. All around us lived masses of Jews who spoke Yiddish, but in our house Yiddish was absolutely forbidden. I grew up with the feeling that anything Jewish was blemished. From my earliest childhood my gaze was directed at the beauty of the non-Jews. They were blond and tall and behaved naturally. They were cultured, and when they didn’t behave in a cultured fashion, at least they behaved naturally.

From my earliest youth I was drawn to non-Jews. They fascinated me with their strangeness, their height, their aloofness. Yet the Jews seemed strange to me too. It took years to understand how much my parents had internalized all the evil they attributed to the Jew, and through them, I did so too. A hard kernel of revulsion was planted within each of us.

Fortunately for me I was blond and didn’t arouse suspicion. (note: This applied to my godmother's brother as well, but did not save him...)

It took me years to draw close to the Jew within me. I had to get rid of many prejudices within me and to meet many Jew in order to find myself within them. Anti-Semitism directed at oneself was an original Jewish creation. I don’t know of any other nation so flooded with self-criticism…The Jewish ability to internalize any critical and condemnatory remark and castigate themselves is one of the marvels of human nature. . . . Only one thing may be said in its favor: it harms no one except those afflicted with it.

The Holocaust belongs to the type of enormous experience which reduces one to silence. Any utterance, any statement, any “answer” is tiny, meaningless and occasionally ridiculous. Even the greatest of answers seems petty.

The survivors have undergone experiences that no one else has undergone, and others expect some message from them, some key to understanding the human world – a human example. But they, of course, cannot begin to fulfill the great tasks imposed upon them, so theirs are clandestine lives of flight and hiding.