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The Story of a Life Paperback – August 8, 2006
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—The New York Times Book Review
“Appelfeld … is a writer of genuine distinction, who [has] transformed his own experience into literature of exceptional clarity and power.”
—The Washington Post
About the Author
Aharon Appelfeld received the Prix Médicis Étranger for The Story of a Life. The author of more than twenty acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, he lives in Jerusalem.
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We also learn of how many people were willing to take advantage of a young boy, left on his own to live in the woods. Yet he mentions several people in camps and later who gave freely of themselves.
Unfortunately, the Holocaust experience is not the only one. Think about Genghis Khan, the Cambodia killing fields, and any society where there is disruption. We now have an entire generation of Syrian refugees and other children who are refugees from brutal wars. There is much in this book that can tell us how a child might react and what kinds of resources will be needed to help these children- in the unlikely event that organized societies will choose to do this.
The important difference for Chernivtsi was that it was invaded by Romania, not Germany, and that it remained under Romanian control until re-taken by the Red Army in August 1944. After initially forming a ghetto in Chernivtsi, Romania began deporting Jews eastwards towards Ukraine's River Buh, the border of Romania's newly-created Transnistria. Some were murdered (including Appelfeld's mother), and many died in transit or in labor camps, but the ultimate intention was deportation beyond the Urals, not the "100 per cent solution" implemented in much of Ukraine by Germany's SS.
Appelfeld was marched into Ukraine's heartland and held for a short time in a work camp, but he soon escaped and pulled-off the remarkable feat of evading capture until the Red Army re-took Ukraine. In summer he lived in the woods; in winter he offered peasants domestic or farm labour in exchange for food and shelter. The peasant about whom he tells us most is clearly the model for Mariana, the whore who provides sanctuary for a young boy in Blooms of Darkness. The woman who sheltered Appelfeld was called Maria, she lived by 'entertaining' a succession of male visitors; the boy, concealed only by a curtain, could not help but know what was going on; and, like Mariana, Maria had a drink problem.
Another Mariana characteristic was derived from the Appelfeld's Ukrainian maid; she reproached socially integrated Jews such as her employers for having "forgotten that there's a God in heaven". Escaping from the ghetto through the town's sewers - an episode in Blooms of Darkness - was not Appelfeld's own experience, but some Chernivtsi orphans were guided to safety by that route.
We don't learn as much of Appelfeld's wartime experience as we might wish, in part because he prefers not to recall the detail of the more traumatic incidents, and in part because he was too young to form a coherent impression of the wider picture into which they fitted. Similarly, details of his exit from Ukraine through Italy and Yugoslavia to Israel are sketchy, but he does provide some delightful images of pre-war life in his maternal grandparents' village home, and on an uncle's farm estate. And then there is Israel, his education and National Service, re-discovering his ancestral religion, learning Hebrew and Yiddish, exploring ancient and modern writings in those languages, and finally gaining acceptance as a writer himself.
Overall, the book is a satisfying read, with many charming, instructive, or otherwise memorable vignettes, but probably no-one will find as much detail as they would like on any specific area of interest.