The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld has died in Petach Tikvah, Israel, at the age of 85. The author of more than 40 books of fiction—almost half of which have been translated into English—Appelfeld drew on his extraordinary autobiography of grit and determination as a child survivor of the Holocaust. In his books, the Holocaust is often a looming, sometimes divisive, presence. Yet one of the hallmarks of Appelfeld’s work is that he never directly refers to or describes the Shoah.
Born in 1932 in Czernowitz, Romania, as Erwin Appelfeld, the author was 9 years old when the Nazis murdered his 31-year-old mother, and he was deported to a concentration camp. Appelfeld eventually escaped from the camp and hid in the forest for the duration of the war. It was in the forest that Appelfeld cultivated his abiding and lifelong affection for the marginalized—prostitutes, thieves and fellow Jews on the run—who played a large part in his survival and influenced his fiction. He eventually joined the Soviet army as a cook and at the end of the war made his way to a displaced persons camp on the Italian coast.
In a Paris Review interview, Appelfeld recalled that when he arrived in Israel at 14 years old, he was completely alone until memory stepped in and provided much-needed companions.
“No parents, no friends. I asked myself, ‘What do I need? Why am I working in the fields? What will happen to me? Where is my life going?’ I had nothing. So then one day I made a list. My father, his name was Michael—I wrote that. My mother, Bunia. My grandfather, Meir Joseph. I wrote, I was born in Czernowitz and my mother was killed. This list gave me a ground I understood. I was not alone. I still had my family. They exist in me. I made myself a family on paper. I wrote it down, and they became real.”
In a 1988 interview with Philip Roth published in The New York Times Book Review, Appelfeld recalled that although he often mined memory for his work, he had “never written about things as they happened. All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but nevertheless they are not ‘the story of my life.’ The things that happened to me in my life have already happened, they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape.”
Appelfeld’s first novel, “Badenheim 1939,” published in Israel in 1978, depicted a summer resort town outside of Vienna, which slowly became a staging area for the deportation of its Jewish tourists. Appelfeld’s carefully constructed purgatory left little doubt that his characters were about to enter hell. Reviewing the book for The New Republic in 1986, Irving Howe called it “a small masterpiece” that was written as if “recognizing a limit to the sovereignty of words…[and] the narrative is as furtive as the history it evokes; the unspeakable is not to be named.” As Howe further noted, Appelfeld’s overriding theme was silence. His language was terse, the dialogue minimal.
I met Appelfeld a couple of times—the first time was in Boston on his book tour two decades ago. He had just won a National Jewish Book Award for his novel “The Iron Tracks,” in which a survivor named Erwin had been traveling through the small towns of Austria since the end of World War II. Erwin had been a salesman of Judaica for 40 years, all the while searching for the man who murdered his parents.
In addition to winning the National Jewish Book Award, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Appelfeld also won awards that included the Israel Prize for literature in 1983, and twice received the Prime Minister’s Prize, as well as the Brenner Prize for literature in 1975 and the Bialik Prize for literature in 1979. He was shortlisted as a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013.
The second time I met Appelfeld was a decade ago in his home outside of Jerusalem. In his book-lined study, he showed me his novels that had been translated into many languages. “I write a very factual prose,” he noted. “There are no poetics or adjectives. I do this so that our imagination works harder.”
As he indicated in the preface to his memoir, “The Story of a Life”—his only work of non-fiction—memory and imagination have a symbiotic relationship. He wrote: “Memory and imagination sometimes dwell together. In those long-buried years, it was as if they competed. Memory was tangible, as if solid. Imagination had wings. Memory pulled toward the known, and imagination sailed toward the unknown.”
Although Appelfeld was not an observant Jew, on that afternoon in Jerusalem, he described himself as a Jew and a writer who wrote on singular Jewish subjects. “Only a superficial writer deals with many issues,” he told me. “A writer deals with one main problem residing in his soul. And a serious writer has a territory, a time and a problem. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about 100 years of solitude. I write about 100 years of Jewish isolation and suffering.”
Appelfeld is survived by his wife and three children.