This typically terse novel from Appelfeld imagines the final year of a European resort town. As always, the resort fills in summertime with vacationing Jews from the European middle-class. Recitals and performances calmly continue in Badenheim, as do swimming and tennis, while in the background Jews are quietly registered for deportation by the local authorities. They are being relocated to Poland, or so they are told, along with many others who suddenly appear in the now-barricaded resort. Anxious weeks pass. Food runs low. Summer turns to autumn. At last they are led to the train station. The book ends with the Jews eagerly jumping aboard the filthy boxcars that will take them, unknowingly, to their deaths.
Indeed these are qualities that make Appelfeld’s books feel unique. He scrubs his books of period details and speaks in fable-like generalities, bringing the story closer, building it into allegory. The Holocaust is only implied. Nothing in the book refers to what is happening outside the resort. Rather Badenheim 1939 is stuffed with characters, each of them overheard for a page or two, each of them too preoccupied with their petty prejudices and comical dramas to fathom their imminent fate.
The shock of the Holocaust is brought home indirectly, as the abrupt silencing of this community of concerns.
Badenheim 1939 begins like Chekhov and ends like Kafka.
Next month we read Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick.