Aharon Appelfeld—the author of 47 books, including numerous novels—died yesterday at the age of eighty-five. Born in the Romanian city of Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), Appelfeld survived World War II as a child in hiding—an experience that informed much of his fiction. He came to Israel in 1946, where he first began to learn Hebrew, the only language in which he would write; his final novel was published in September. Unlike Israel’s other literary giants, Appelfeld steered clear of politics in both his writings and his public pronouncements. In 1983, Ruth Wisse appraised his work up to that point:
Appelfeld’s short stories and novels are concerned with the effect of [World War II] on the assimilated Jews of his boyhood milieu. His work is classified as Holocaust literature because of its subject matter and because of the sense of doom that presses down on most of his characters even when they temporarily manage to elude their earthly predators. Yet Appelfeld’s writings are actually more engaged with the world into which he was born than with the forces that determined its extinction. Like Kafka, the writer with whom he is often compared and to whom he acknowledges a major debt, Appelfeld knew anti-Semitism from the inside, from the anti-Jewishness of his own home, before he encountered it in society, and it is this initial discovery that has remained the more decisive. The hostility of outsiders appeared to be almost proper retribution for the spiritual meanness of his assimilating family. . . .
Appelfeld’s The Age of Wonders, [published in English in 1981], . . . traces the remorseless pressure of anti-Semitism in the late 1930’s upon a family that is ill-equipped to understand or to escape it. Under Nazism, the [protagonist, then a boy], and his mother—expelled from an idyllic summer retreat—become aware of the meaning of their identity. The boy’s father, who had just begun to attain some recognition as a writer, is set upon in print by anonymous critics, and is gradually cut off from all his cultural outlets. This is the more unbearable to him since he shares in the general hostility to Jews, of whose evil and unpleasant ways he considers himself free. . . .
The ontological condition of this book is anti-Semitism, and one can think of few such thorough descriptions of its spread among Jews themselves. The boy’s father is the purest example. . . . The boy, grown to a man, avenges his father by a peculiar act of definition: if six million corpses were not enough to satisfy the anti-Semite’s hatred, the Jew can at least refuse to play the complementary role of the self-hater. So he slaps his enemy, returning the aggression where it belongs. But he cannot slap his father for the inglorious and ugly legacy he has been given, nor can he free himself from its oppressiveness. “His father, his father—the wound that never healed.”