He describes himself as "a small, old Jew with glasses" with a voice
that has the tenderness and wisdom of the Torah. His prose has a rare
clarity, a profound delicacy bled to the sadness of life.
We met over lunch in London, hunched over visions of "small Jews
walking in the streets of New York - self-critical Jews, devoured by
ideas, but alive". Primo Levi wrote: "Among us, the writer survivors,
Aharon Appelfeld's voice has a unique, unmistakeable tone, eloquent
through reticence." When we left, he wrote: "For a new friend, Aharon".
Michael March: When Moses went to the mountain, what did he really say?
Aharon Appelfeld: I have
never thought about that. I have never dealt with such mythological
figures as Moses. For me it is enough to have Bartfuss, who is walking
from café to café. He is my hero. I find myself more at home, more
close to people who lived their lives, their small lives, their sadness
and their small happiness - not among people who are statues like Moses.
MM: How should a stranger read your work?
AP: As a saga of Jewish
sadness - long, Jewish sadness that had different variations. And I am
trying to pick up the last chapters.
MM: What is the origin of this sadness?
AP: It comes out of a strong
feeling that it is difficult to change the world - it's difficult to
change yourself, it's difficult to change your surroundings - it's
difficult to change the world. And therefore - the sadness. Jews are
very critical people, highly critical. And if you are critical, first
of all with yourself, it saddens you. I am speaking about a kind of
sensitive Jew - the people who were living in Europe, who absorbed
Europe and who tried to change Europe. They became communists to change
Europe, they became liberals to change Europe - and finally were killed.
MM: Trace your sadness.
AP: I was born into a very
Jewish, highly assimilated family - in a town named Czernovitz that was
part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My first language was German. So
German was not only culture, it was a religion which was highly
appreciated. I still remember as a child going to Berlin or Prague. It
was a kind of pilgrimage - it was not like going to temple. We saw
ourselves as citizens of Europe - not only equal citizens, but probably
we wished to be better citizens. And suddenly came the Germans and put
us into the ghetto and then to a labour camp and then to a
concentration camp. And they said to you: it doesn't matter what you
think, or what you feel, or what you believe - the blood in your veins
condemns you to death.
This is the baggage, the cultural baggage that I brought with me to
Israel. I came to Israel when I was fourteen years old, and I brought
with me the experience of an eighty-five year old. I went through all
the camps, through all the hidings being involved with all kinds of
people. And it was difficult to express. To find the proper words for
it. To speak in an honest way, in a proper way - not too high and not
MM: What brought you to write in Hebrew?
AP: I left my home when I
was eight years old. So my education was first grade - this is my
formal education, I finished one grade. And then came the camps and all
what happened to me. So Hebrew became my first written language. It
became my language, my adopted language if you wish. And I started to
write mainly because I came alone to Israel as an orphan and paper
became my friend.
MM: I first discovered you in ‘Badenheim 1939’.
AP: It was not called
Badenheim, it had another name. I remember as a child my parents and I
were always looking for a non-Jewish pension, a non-Jewish resort. And
we always found ourselves with the same people. Every year the same
irony. We wanted to escape the noisy Jews, and we always found
ourselves among them. This is the emotional basis of the book:
wonderful people, middle-class Jews who thought themselves European -
who cheated themselves by believing that no one knew they were Jewish.
They were sure that Jewishness doesn't mean anything to the
surroundings. This was a self-deception, a great self-deception which I
wanted to explore.
MM: You explore in a most delicate manner, an almost Japanese manner, for self-deception is terrifying.
AP: No question of it. There
is reality, a very strong reality, and you are denying it, you are
denying it permanently and saying it doesn't exist at all. This is very
painful. Because Jews, at the beginning of the book at the end of the
Thirties, were on the way to being integrated into Europe. This was the
main trend - assimilation was the main trend, not nationalism.
MM: This seems to parallel our self-deception of a united Europe.
AP: Self-deception is very humane. In the Thirties it became a Jewish phenomena. Now in the Nineties it's a universal phenomena.
MM: Can be a united Europe?
AP: I don't think there can
be a united Europe because national feelings remain very strong. Why
not pluralism? I would like a peaceful pluralism. But an artificial
union is meaningless.
MM: What were your feelings when you returned to Europe?
AP: I have never returned to
Europe. England is not the continent. I have never been to Germany,
though my books are published in Germany. I've never been in Austria
because it was difficult to face people who spoke my intimate language
- German. Though I don't speak German, I still have the voice of my
MM: What about coming to the Writers' Festival in Prague?
AP: Prague is different. You
know, I used to come with my parents to Prague when I was child.
Prague, Vienna, Berlin were the capitals of my parents, and I remember
the streets in a very childish way as I was only five or six. But as I
was the only son, they took me. Prague remains in my imagination
similar, though not so elegant, as the town where I was born. So I
should feel myself at home. Actually, I knew all of Kafka's friends who
emigrated to Israel, a number who studied with him, I knew all of them
in Israel. Because I was crazy about Kafka and I was looking for every
person who could give me something about his life.
MM: Why Kafka?
AP: When I became a writer
and became conscious of my writing, I felt I could not write speech as
written before. You cannot write about the holocaust in a realistic way
- you cannot speak about it in social terms, or economic terms, or
political terms. You have to speak in a different language. And Kafka
was the first who pointed in this direction. Kafka saved my writing.
MM: How was Kafka remembered by his close friends?
AP: They remember him as a humourist. This sad person, his sadness was so profound, all of them remember him as a humourist.
MM: As a stand-up comedian?
AP: As a person whose every
chapter, every story read to them, was full of laughter, full of
humour. Humour was the key word. And this was very interesting for me
because when I read Kafka I felt the irony, but I had no felt that this
could arise from deep laughter, from deep joy. None of them spoke about
Kafka as a terrifying person who is conquered by demons.
MM: Did they see Kafka as a ladies-man, as a lady-killer?
AP: A lady-killer - all of
them treated him as a person who has been beloved by many women. He
could not cope with them. He was actually too weak for them. Writing
was his essence. I would not separate his diaries, I would not separate
his letters. In very few people are creative work and actual work so
close. Every paragraph in his diaries is actually a small masterpiece.
MM: I sense your attachment to Beckett, the duality of Kafka and Beckett.
AP: Of course. Kafka brought a Jewish tradition, Beckett an ascetic tradition.
MM: And both brought laughter in a tin drum
AP: From Beckett I
understood that the unspoken is more important than the spoken - that
the silence between words is one of the most important things. He was
indirectly one of my teachers.
MM: Precisely the quality of
a poet - who lends a physical-spiritual space between words and
sentences. Beckett was very much a poet
AP: Beckett was a poet - relating to words and people. He created figures on a stage - a metaphysical arena.
MM: How would you stage your work?
AP: I see myself as a
European, Jewish writer. And I am following the path of Kafka and Bruno
Schulz, and in some way, Werfel, or with people who were affliated with
them. These are my roots, my spiritual roots. And I am very proud that
my German is very similar to Kafka's - that we spoke the same German at
MM: Yet in Israel you are seen as a Jewish writer, a writer who has felt a certain discomfort in the past.
AP: I suffered with pride. I
am very proud of this European, Jewish legacy that failed. It didn't
fail in literature, but it failed in ideology.
MM: What about the new ideology of blond, blue-eyed Jews?
AP: When I came to Israel,
it was a very ideological country - with socialist, communist
tendencies. Now, thank God, it's better. Now there is room for a person
like me - who is coming from a Jewish European tradition, who still
thinks that the Jewish European tradition was the peak of Jewish
history in modern times.