An unadorned and heartbreaking tale of a young boy coming of age during World War II.
Appelfeld (Laish, 2009, etc.) introduces us to Hugo Mansfeld, who is just about to turn 11 and who, without being aware of it, is more on the cusp of adulthood than of adolescence. Life in the ghetto has recently become unbearably tense and stressful. Hugo’s father, a pharmacist, has been taken to a labor camp, and his mother is desperately looking for somewhere safe to place her son, perhaps in a local village near the Carpathian Mountains. After several plans fall through because some possible rescuers have been transported to camps by the German authorities, Hugo’s mother places her son with Mariana, an old childhood friend who’s “fallen low.” Hugo quickly learns he is not allowed to go outside and must spend his nights in the closet of Mariana’s sumptuous bedroom. A quiet child who at first likes to spend his time playing chess and reading, Hugo is also sensitive, reflective and almost comically polite. It turns out that Mariana is a prostitute, and the place where she lives, The Residence, is a brothel, but for a while Mariana succeeds in keeping Hugo’s whereabouts a secret. Eventually, in her loneliness and alcoholic wooziness, she innocently takes Hugo to her bed for solace and companionship. He loves being comforted in Mariana’s warm embrace, but as life in this Ukrainian village comes under increasing threat from retreating Germans and advancing Russians, they become lovers. After Hugo has been with Mariana for over a year, the Residence closes down altogether, and they travel the sparse countryside, trying to pass themselves off as mother and son. In time, however, Mariana is caught, and the Russians don’t take kindly to women who have consorted with Germans. Throughout their harrowing ordeal Mariana tries to hold on to some semblance of faith in a God she feels she has abandoned—or vice versa.
Poignant and tender without being sentimental, the novel achieves its powerful emotive effects through simplicity and understatement—a beautiful read.