THE RETREAT by Aharon Appelfeld


Email this review


Again, as in Badenheim 1939 and The Age of Wonders, Appelfeld offers a small, grim parable about Austrian-Jewish culture under the first shadows of the Holocaust; again, too, the effect is initially striking, then slight and static. It's the late 1930s. Aging actress Lotte has been deprived of her minor career--apparently because of anti-Semitic regulations. (The Nazi threat is never made completely explicit here.) Her sour daughter and hostile son-in-law don't want her as a permanent houseguest. So Lotte must go to a mountaintop ""retreat"" for Jewish old-folks and other lost souls--declaring, ""in the voice of a person announcing his own suicide: If nobody wants me any more--I'll go to the Jews."" But the shabby retreat, it turns out, is an exaggerated reflection of Lotte's own aversion--Europeanized, cultured, assimilated--to Jewishness. The hotel's manager is obsessed with his mission--to ""eradicate embarrassing Jewish gestures and ugly accents."" (Outdoor athleticism--a supposedly non-Jewish activity--is insistently encouraged.) One of the inmates is an imperious, elderly matron who denies all Jewishness, commits suicide, and is buried (as requested) without Jewish rites. Other inmates bemoan their Jewish ""defects,"" debate the possibility of total assimilation--if not for themselves, then for their children via conversion. (""We were born Jews and it seems we shall die Jews. Let's not leave any traces beyond what's strictly necessary."") Finally, however, after the hotel-manager dies and the retreat is threatened by persecution from the local villagers, the inmates cling together at last. Less dramatic--and more didactic--than either The Age of Wonders or Tzili: a heavily ironic vignette on the theme of assimilation, with a vivid, atmospheric concept that remains largely undeveloped.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1984
Publisher: Dutton