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The Story of a Life: A Memoir Hardcover – October 5, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Only the most artful writer could relate nearly seven decades of life—a life that encompasses the Holocaust, resettlement in Palestine, army service, university studies with the likes of Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber, finding his writer's voice—in barely more than 200 pages and leave the reader feeling that nothing essential has been omitted. But spareness and elegant simplicity have always characterized the writing of Appelfeld, whom one hesitates to call a great novelist of the Holocaust (Badenheim 1939; Tzili; etc.) after reading that he shuns the designation as "annoying": "A writer... writes from within himself and mainly about himself, and if there is any meaning to what he says, it's because he's faithful to himself." Most surprising in this exquisite, and at times exquisitely sad, memoir is to find the source of Appelfeld's spare style: He is, it seems, a man of silence, of contemplation (the pleasure of which "is that it's devoid of words") who yet feels compelled to express himself in words and so weighs each one carefully. Appelfeld keenly feels both the inadequacy of language ("Words are powerless when confronted by catastrophe; they're pitiable, wretched, and easily distorted)" and their inescapable necessity. But the spareness, one feels, is a residue of the war years that obliterated an idyllic childhood spent in his hometown of Czernowitz, in Romania, with his assimilated parents, and vacations with his religious grandparents in the lush, green Carpathians mountains. His mother shot, seven-year-old Appelfeld and his father are sent on a two-month-long forced march, in mud so deep children drown in it. Placed in a camp, young Aharon manages to escape and for the rest of the war hides alone, or with a friend, in the forests, where he can sit peacefully and silently and relive the happy past in his imagination. The difficulty of adjusting to life in Palestine (soon Israel) also revolved around language—Appelfeld's sense that he has none: that his mother tongue, German, is fading, yet he has difficulty absorbing Hebrew. Without a language, he feels a loss of identity.The finding of his voice, his eventual acceptance of Hebrew, comes for Appelfeld only with learning that—despite the orders he and other young survivor-immigrants have been given to forget the past and build a new life—he must cling to his past and remain rooted in it. He relates many painful scenes; the most heartrending image is of the ghetto's blind children, urged on by their guardian, singing in unison as they are pushed onto the cattle cars for deportation. And so this great memoir—sure to be a classic—is about much more than the Holocaust. It tells of the genesis of an artist; his struggle with his medium, language; and the difficulty of learning to trust his own instincts and his inimitable voice as a writer.
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From Booklist

Acclaimed novelist Appelfeld survived the Holocaust and came to Israel in 1946 as an orphan. He was seven when war tore apart his comfortable, assimilated Jewish home in the Ukraine, barely 13 when the war ended. His memoir, translated from the Hebrew, is not a chronological narrative but a frank, searing discussion about what and how he remembers, what it means to be Jewish, and how to write about it without sentimentality or rhetoric. Some of the literary stuff gets tedious; it's the memories through the eyes of a child that are the drama here. Almost mute after years in hiding in the forest, he wants to forget, and in Israel, he's encouraged to do so and to fight and farm for a strong homeland. But he makes his story from the experiences he cannot speak about. Whether it's his mother's murder ("I didn't see her die, but I did hear her one and only scream") or the brutality and humanity among the traumatized survivors in the displacement camps, the sharp, unforgettable vignettes tell the truth. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken; 1st American Ed edition (October 5, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805241787
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805241785
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,454,343 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Charles Patterson on October 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Aharon Appelfeld, the highly regarded Israeli novelist and Holocaust survivor, has written a hauntingly beautiful book.

It begins with a loving description of his childhood years with his parents in Czernowitz near the Carpathian Mountains and with his grandparents whom he visited in the country every summer. That all ended with the Nazi invasion in 1941 and the murder of his mother. After months of confinement in a ghetto, Aharon, his father, and the other Jews who had not yet been shot or starved to death were forced to march across the Ukraine to a slave labor camp.

Appelfeld writes sparingly about the ghetto, the forced march to the labor camp, his escape from the camp, and the deaths of his parents. "I have forgotten much, even things that were very close to me--places in particular, dates, and the names of people--and yet I can still sense those days in every part of my body."

He describes in somewhat greater detail the time he spent hiding alone in the Ukrainian forest. The strongest imprints the war years made on him, he writes, were intensely physical ones, like hunger for bread. "To this very day I can wake up in the middle of the night ravenously hungry. Dreams of hunger and thirst haunt me almost on a weekly basis. I eat as only people who have known hunger eat, with a strangely ravenous appetite."

He writes that his novels hardly begin to capture what he went through. "I've already written more than twenty books about those years, but sometimes it seems as if I haven't yet begun to describe them. Sometimes it seems to me that a fully detailed memory is still concealed within me, and when it emerges from its bunker, it will flow fiercely and strongly for days on end.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Applefeld is one of those writers much loved by critics but without a great legion of readers. I never somehow really 'got into ' his fictional works. This memoir however was different and I was deeply moved by it.

His story of his childhood in Czernowitz, the relations within his family, his special connection to his mother who was murdered by the Nazis , his being torn out of his childhood world, and sent with his father on a death march, his escape and life as a child in the forest and with a prostitute who makes him her servant and alternately terrifies and fascinates him, his hiding, and moving about , his finding his way to the ship which will bring him to the new home in the land of the Jews, his difficulties in accomodation , his being an outsider here even where he is supposed to be at home- all this is told with great restraint and power. Applefeld himself seems to radiate a certain kind of calm, the calm of what he has described himself often as ' the observer' the one who ' waits and looks' and tries to understand. His early efforts at writing are also described here and the contradictions between what others expected of a ' Holocaust writer' and what he himself had to give. The sense of loneliness is palpable in the last pages of the book where he tells of his coming to belong in the club made of those from his former home - region .The dissolution of this club with the years is the loss of a second home.

As with Oz in his also remarkable memoir " A Tale of Love and Darkness" Applefeld does not delve into the present reality, into the world of the new family he has made. He says he walks around and at times ' he is back there' and this work gives a real sense of what that ' there' is.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Eric Maroney on October 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Reading Aharon Appelfeld's The Story of a Life gives the reader a the strange sensation that what is happening is both too real and hard to believe.

This is not to say that what he writes about did not happen. It just strains the reader's ability to believe that human beings can sink to such levels of depravity (and they can, we know this to be so). And there is no greater barometer on how low human nature can sink than the treatment of our or other people's children. The instinct to protect children is strong within us. We more readily slow our car when we see a small child on a bicycle than an adult. A lost adult looking for directions may be an irritant, a crying child that has lost a mother is worthy of our support and tenderness.

Appelfeld's mother was shot early in the war, and he and his father were forced to march for two months across the Ukraine to a camp. There, Appelfeld escaped, and he lived for two years in the forests and fields, sometimes living with abusive peasants, but most of the time alone in forests. This memoir reads as one long depredation. Appelfeld is abused by nearly everyone he meets. But he always provides counter-examples of people who gave him support at critical moments --- moments that helped him survive.

He also touches on a topic that nearly all survivors of great traumas experience: how words seem to degrade memory. Appelfeld has written nearly 30 works on the war years, but still struggles to couch it in language. The Holocaust defies mimesis. How can the unimaginable be couched in such a pedestrian thing as language?
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