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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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
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