Jan’s Too Busy for Books: Appelfeld

Jan’s Too Busy for Books: Appelfeld

“Both cafes remained open and the band played every night, but it still seemed that some other time, from some other place, had invaded the town and was silently establishing itself.”

This month the “Too Busy for Books” Book Club met at the Pennington Public Library to discuss Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld.

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.

Appelfeld himself survived the Holocaust. At eight, he escaped the camps. He lived in the forests for much of the war. He made his way to Palestine in 1946. He was fourteen years old. Though fluent already in more than ten languages, Appelfeld set about teaching himself Hebrew, and this is the language in which he now writes his books. The Hebrew language, according to Appelfeld, forces him to write sparingly, with few adjectives, with no comments from the author, and no interpretation provided.

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.

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