Authors: Aharon Appelfeld

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Romanian-born Israeli novelist and short-story writer

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Ke’ishon ha-ayin, 1972

Badenheim, ‘ir nofesh, 1975 (Badenheim 1939, 1980)

Tor-ha-pela’ot, 1978 (The Age of Wonders, 1981)

Kutonet veha-pasim, 1983 (Tzili: The Story of a Life, 1983)

Nesiga mislat, 1984 (The Retreat, 1984)

Be-’et uve’onah ahat, 1985 (The Healer, 1990)

To the Land of the Cattails, 1986 (also known as To the Land of the Reeds)

Bartfus ben ha-almavet, 1988 (The Immortal Bartfuss, 1988)

Al kol hapshaim, n.d. (For Every Sin, 1989)

Katerinah, 1989 (Katerina, 1992)

Mesilat barzel, 1991 (The Iron Tracks, 1998)

Timyon, 1993 (The Conversion, 1998)

Unto the Soul, 1994

Layish, 1994

‘Ad she-ya’aleh ‘amud ha-shahar, 1995

Mikhreh hakerah, 1997

Kol asher ahavti, 1999

Masa’ el ha-horef, 2000

Short Fiction:

‘Ashan, 1962

Ba-gai ha-poreh, 1963

Kefor ‘al ha-arets, 1965

In the Wilderness: Stories, 1965

Be-komat ha-karka’, 1968

Adne ha-nahar, 1971

Ke-me a edim, 1975

Shanim ve-sha ot, 1975


Masot be-guf rishon, 1979

What Is Jewish in Jewish Literature? A Symposium with Israeli Writers Aharon Appelfeld and Yoav Elstein, 1993

Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth, 1994

Sipur hayim, 1999

‘Od ha-yom gadol: Yerushalayim, ha-zikaron veha-or, 2001.


Aharon Appelfeld is a survivor of the Holocaust whose writing is stamped by a melancholy sense of the doom he managed to elude. He writes in Hebrew, but many of his novels and short stories have been translated into English. His writing has earned for him a significant and distinctive place in contemporary fiction. None of his texts directly alludes to the Holocaust’s appalling reality of suffering and deaths, but the horrors to come (or remembered) are a constant flickering on the horizon of his muted, compressed, austerely understated perspective.{$I[AN]9810001200}{$I[A]Appelfeld, Aharon}{$I[geo]ISRAEL;Appelfeld, Aharon}{$I[geo]ROMANIA;Appelfeld, Aharon}{$I[geo]UKRAINE;Appelfeld, Aharon}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Appelfeld, Aharon}{$I[tim]1932;Appelfeld, Aharon}

Appelfeld’s hometown of Czernowitz, in the province of Bukovina, had belonged to the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when it became part of the newly created nation of Romania; it is now in Ukraine. Appelfeld was seven years old when German troops occupied Czernowitz. His mother was killed, and he and his father were transported to Ukraine and separately interned. In 1941, Appelfeld managed to escape from his camp. Being blond and able to speak Ukrainian, he was able to hide his Jewish identity from the Germans and anti-Semitic Ukrainian peasants. For three years he worked as a shepherd and farmhand, associating mostly with horse thieves and prostitutes. After the armistice, he joined a group of boys who wandered to southern Italy and from there migrated to British-mandate Palestine in 1946. There he worked on a farm in the mornings and learned Hebrew in the afternoons. From 1948 to 1950, he served in the Israeli army.

In 1950, Appelfeld passed the matriculation examination for admission to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After obtaining his B.A. and M.A. degrees, he studied briefly in Zurich and Oxford but then returned to Israel, where he eventually taught Jewish literature at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. He married an Argentine-born woman, and they had two sons and one daughter. In 1960, he chanced to see his father’s name on a list of immigrants due to arrive from Eastern Europe, and they were reunited.

In the late 1950’s, Appelfeld began to write–first poems, then stories, and finally short novels. It took him a long time to find his natural voice and subject matter. In a revealing interview with the American author Philip Roth, Appelfeld noted that Franz Kafka’s works, which he had discovered in the 1950’s, had influenced him more deeply than those of any other writer. The best known of Appelfeld’s translated novels is the first one published in the United States, Badenheim 1939, whose Hebrew title could more literally be translated as “Badenheim, resort town.” Badenheim is a Jewish spa near Vienna, where, in the summer of 1939, the Sanitation Department begins to register all vacationers. In the book’s final paragraph, the visitors are moved to a freight train and taken to their doom in the East. In the second translated novel, The Age of Wonders, the Holocaust overtakes a group of bourgeois, assimilated, unwary Jews in an isolated Austrian town. Again Appelfeld makes no explicit reference to historic events. As in a Kafka text, the ordeal descends inexplicably, irrationally, irresistibly. Here the horror continues, however, when the central character returns to the town after the end of the Holocaust and finds Jews still ashamed of their Jewishness and many non-Jews still anti-Semitic.

Tzili is a simpler tale than the first two, concerned with the wanderings of a slow-witted, East-European Jewish girl, which somewhat parallel Appelfeld’s own wanderings during and after World War II. Tzili survives the Holocaust almost inadvertently: She is a simpleton blessed with animal strength, almost mute, unable to feel profound grief, rage, or resentment over her brutalization. Yet her dull passivity somehow enables her to endure horrors that overwhelm more intelligent and introspective individuals. In The Retreat, Appelfeld returns to the provincial Austria of the late 1930’s. It is a cool, probing, and unsparing critique of Jewish attempts to assimilate themselves to the dominant gentile culture. The novel concludes flatly and forebodingly, with the reader aware that European Jewry’s encounter with tragic history is about to reach its apocalypse.

To the Land of the Cattails is another journey toward doom, with a divorced Jewish mother and her sensitive, adolescent son traveling to her parents’ home in Appelfeld’s native province of Bukovina. The mother and her parents disappear. The son then joins a cluster of Jews at a railroad station, waiting for the train that will carry them to their grim fate.

The Immortal Bartfuss is the first translated novel to focus on contemporary Israel. The protagonist, Bartfuss, has survived the Holocaust, now lives in Jaffa, and broods through an insular, self-isolated, emotionally numb existence. His wife is embittered, his daughter is mentally handicapped, and his relations with friends and acquaintances are wary and mistrustful. At the end, Bartfuss shows some signs of crossing over from alienation to fellowship and generosity.

In novels such as The Healer and Unto the Soul, Appelfeld also treats the life of the Jews in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. He shows the anti-Semitism his characters face and the kinds of self-denial and even self-loathing in which many engage in their attempts to become assimilated into European culture. In The Conversion, for example, a middle-aged Jew seeks to aid his career by converting to Christianity but rediscovers his heritage when a government proposal threatens the Jewish population. In For Every Sin, he examines the troubled lives of Holocaust survivors, exploring the problems they encounter in trying to adjust to a life of freedom and the difficulty they have learning to show emotions, including love. The Iron Tracks tells of a Holocaust survivor who travels Central Europe searching for Jewish artifacts and for revenge against the Nazi officer who murdered his parents.

Appelfeld has won many awards for his writing, including the Harold U. Ribelow Prize in 1987 and the Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service in 1990. His artistic aim has always been to produce fiction that meditates somberly and austerely on the precarious course of modern Jewish history. He struggles relentlessly with the culture of self-rejection to which all too many Jews succumbed in Eastern and Central Europe. In his flat, controlled, subdued, and fabulistic prose, which is never shrill, thundering, or moralizing, he presents scenes that pass a scorching judgment on both Jewish self-hatred and gentile homicide. As a Holocaust writer, he belongs to the company of such writers as Elie Wiesel, Jerzy Kosinski, and Primo Levi. Appelfeld has put his elegiac, dreamlike prose at the service of a stern moral vision. He expresses his sadness at the human capacity for victimization and cruelty in compelling images.

BibliographyAppelfeld, Aharon. Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. New York: Fromm International, 1994. Series of lectures contains useful biographical information on Appelfeld. In an interview that first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1988, Roth and Appelfeld explore the biographical and literary sources of Appelfeld’s works.Bauer, Yehuda, et al., eds. Remembering for the Future. 3 vols. Elmsford, N.Y.: Pergamon Press, 1989. Includes many informative essays on Appelfeld, especially “Aharon Appelfeld and the Uses of Language and Silence,” in which Lawrence I. Langer explores irony in Appelfeld’s work, and “To Express the Inexpressible: The Holocaust Literature of Aharon Appelfeld,” in which Nurit Govrin treats Appelfeld’s fiction in the context of his essays.Budick, Emily Miller. Aharon Appelfeld’s Fiction: Acknowledging the Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Presents philosphical analyses of Appelfeld’s major novels, including Badenheim 1939, Tzili, and The Iron Tracks, addressing how these fictional works support understanding of true historical events.Fridman, Lea Wernick. “The Silence of Historical Traumatic Experience: Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939.” In Words and Witness: Narrative and Aesthetic Strategies in the Representation of the Holocaust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Analyzes Appelfeld’s novel Badenheim 1939 along with other Holocaust literature to demonstrate how Appelfeld and other writers invent techniques to represent this “unrepresentable” tragedy.Ramras-Rauch, Gila. Aharon Appelfeld: The Holocaust and Beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Provides biographical information on Appelfeld as well as critical discussion of his works.Schwartz, Yigal. Aharon Appelfeld: From Individual Lament to Tribal Eternity. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2001. Discusses three major themes in Appelfeld’s work: the recovery of childhood and memory, the creation of place, and the religious stance of the Holocaust writer. Maintains that Appelfeld’s underlying concerns transcend his experiences as a Holocaust survivor to include larger issues of Jewish identity.Wisse, Ruth R. “Aharon Appelfeld, Survivor.” Commentary 76, no. 2 (August, 1983): 73-76. Contains an early appraisal of Appelfeld’s fiction.
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