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 about his 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.