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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
Aharon Appelfeld's mother was murdered by Nazis at their home in Czernowitz, in the Bukovina province of Romania. Today Czernowitz is in the Ukraine. From the outset Mr Appelfeld states that "The pages before you are segments of contemplation and memory", and that "Memory and imagination sometimes dwell together." He does not claim to write chronologically; nor does he see himself as a writer about the Holocaust. If a reader is obsessed with chronological accuracy, she or he will at first find this story confusing and frustrating, just as this reader did. Aharon was born in 1932, but because the tale has so little to do with exact times, it is difficult to work out whether Aharon was 7 or 9 when his mother was killed. She was killed by the Germans, but they did not invade Romania until 1941 when he would have been nine years old. If one can dismiss this question as being irrelevant, the story begins to unfold and to flow, and one can go with it.
After his mother's death, Aharon and his father found themselves on what was virtually a death march through the Ukraine, with few survivors reaching the concentration camp which was their goal. Once in the camp, they became separated from each other, and the child managed to escape. He spent the next few years wandering in the forests and fields of Eastern Europe, often terror-stricken, learning how to shelter and feed himself in the forest, listening for danger by lying with his ear to the earth: The sound of people always meant danger. He had a number of adventures, about which he has written in more detail in other books, always as fiction.
When a little child is living in terror, all alone, extremely traumatized, he or she is not going to remember many details of geography or events. His memories, he states, remain in his body: In extreme cold, he is back in the forest; when his knees hurt, he feels that he is kneeling in the forest as a child, and memories return. He recalls that throughout those lonely and frightening years he was convinced that his parents would eventually turn up to rescue him; their seemingly total disappearance, forever, was very difficult to grasp.
He writes movingly and very beautifully of the pre-war years, of their happiness as a family unit, of his grandparents whom he loved, and especially of his grandfather with whom he attended Synagogue. He tells of the pure beauty of his homeland, of the majesty of the Carpathians. And of the sinister encroachment of Nazi doctrines even before the arrival of SS and Wehrmacht. The increasing desperation of his father in trying to find a way out of Romania for the family, and the refusal of the USA, England and the British Mandate in the Middle East to give them shelter, are vividly described.
In 1946 he reaches the land that is soon to become Israel. He is virtually mute after years of scarcely speaking, and finds it immensely difficult to cope with the vast numbers of people, the modern Hebrew spoken in Israel, and almost every aspect of life there. Gradually he makes friends; mentors seem to find him; he discovers Hebrew through the Biblical language, and also by being able to speak Yiddish. This takes him back spiritually to his Romanian home and happy childhood, and slowly he learns to join that early childhood to his young manhood in Israel. Pre-war he had had less than one year of schooling; he states that the first real classes he ever attended were at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
Emerging memories torment him, and he desperately tries to keep them locked into a "basement fortification," because in the early years of Israel everyone was encouraged, indeed instructed, to "forget the past" and "make a new life." All of this was a complex struggle, but he eventually seemed to find a way of uniting past and present. He naturally could not pretend to himself that his past life with his parents in the beautiful land of his birth had not existed, or that memories of his wanderings during the war years did not continue to haunt him.
He briefly discusses his unhappy years in the Israel Defence Force where he felt puny, weak and out of place. And then the reader learns a little about his later life in Israel, of how he begins to write, of those who encouraged him, and of those who scorned him.
The entire book, although it has the feel of dreaminess, emerges as a whole, as unity, as the story of a person who has found himself and knows who he is. The translation (by Aloma Halter) from the Hebrew is excellent, in that it is totally comprehensible and does not seem to lose the author's essence. I loved this book. Sad and difficult as the story is, and as much of the writer's life has been, it and he are impossible to forget once this book has been read.
If anyone is interested in the phenomenon of memories being held in the body and then finding their way into the intellect, I can recommend Babette Rothschild"s "The Body Remembers : The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment."
This book is also a kind of key to much of Appelfeld's fiction. Many of the motifs, the fixations, the themes that are explored, especially in his early years, are here in an unmediated format. This book is essential for Appelfeld readers.