Aharon Appelfeld is more than just a face in the (steadily diminishing) crowd of Holocaust survivors. He is a writer of genuine distinction who in his previous books -- works of fiction, most notablyBadenheim 1939 and The Age of Wonders -- transformed his own experience into literature of exceptional clarity and power. Thus, apart from its own merits, The Story of a Life provides the factual evidence upon which much of the fiction is based and deepens our understanding of this writer's work.
The Washington Post
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. (Oct. 5) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
This memoir by Israeli novelist Appelfeld (The Conversion) focuses on his experiences during World War II. As in his novels, many of which deal with the catastrophe facing European Jewry, Appelfeld tells his story lyrically, almost as if he were recounting a dream. Since he was only eight when his mother was killed and not much older when the rest of his family was murdered he cannot tell the story of his early life with any great detail. Indeed, Appelfeld asserts that children who experienced the Holocaust later find that memory is "overflowing and changing." Appelfeld spent months hiding in the forests of Eastern Europe, and in many ways he has never left them. Thus, this memoir is more about the motivations in his life than the actual details. For example, readers will search in vain for the names of Appelfeld's wife and children. His book, however, does provide important insight into how he has managed to live with his memories, unlike Primo Levi, whose memories destroyed him. Recommended for public libraries and specialized collections. Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
A lyrical, impressionistic memoir by a Holocaust survivor who was only seven when the Nazis first blackened the sun. Appelfeld, who has often fictionalized those war years (The Iron Tracks, 1998, etc.), here takes on a more difficult task: to remember. "Much has been lost," he writes, "and much corroded by oblivion." He does not pretend to remember more than he does and comments that his memories lie in his body more than in his mind. An only child, he lost both parents in the Holocaust, but he escaped from his camp in 1942 (he was ten) and spent two years living in the woods, wandering, suffering at the hands of Ukrainian peasants who took him in, then abused him (some sections are hauntingly reminiscent of Jerzy Kosinki's The Painted Bird). There are horror stories here, of course, the most disturbing of which was a prison "sport" that took place in the "Pen." The guards put little children inside the fencing where roamed ravenous German shepherds. Appelfeld also writes powerfully about language. By the time it was over and he was in Israel, he had no language he could call his own. He resented being forced to learn Hebrew and was saddened to lose his German, his mother's native tongue. From 1946 to 1950, he worked on various agricultural projects, then joined the army, where he was deemed physically unsuitable for combat. Afterwards, he attended Jerusalem's Hebrew University, where he studied Yiddish and began writing. He discusses the criticism he endured from many who believed the Holocaust should not be fictionalized, but he realized that stories and novels were the only way he could deal with the horror whose specifics he barely remembered. There are unspeakably sad passages abouthis parents and his grandparents; there are sentences of stark beauty that alarm as well as inform: "In the ghetto, children and madmen were friends."A troubling meditation on memory, madness, language, evil, and, ultimately, love.
—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