October 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Aharon Appelfeld

Let’s start with a rant, shall we?

As an Australian, I find myself living in a country rapidly descending into a form of light fascism -- an experience familiar to many of you Americans, Britons and Europeans. Among the latest delightful innovations here is a soon to be introduced law allowing the government to hold anyone they like for 14 days without charge. All this is done in the name of the ludicrous "war on terror," because we can’t let those pesky terrorists win, can we? Except that they already have won, of course, since Western democracies can’t move fast enough to jettison the freedoms and rights of their citizens.

To go on from here and make a comparison with the rise of Nazi Germany might seem like too big a stretch. It’s certainly not intended to insult anyone who was a victim of that regime. However, it does seem that people are very willing to say, “Never again!” and then sit back and let their governments commit all sorts of crimes.

Australia, for example, routinely locks up children (including newborns) in concentration camps. It gets away with it by maintaining that they are ‘illegals,’ which usually means Asians and Middle Easterners. The media and the public are kept well away from these ‘detention centres’, and when public attention gets too strong, they are shipped off to even more vile camps in compliant, out-of-the-way Pacific Island nations who’ll do exactly what they’re told in return for aid funding. If none of these sounds a warning bell in the minds of people with any historical understanding or perspective, then that’s a very worrying thing indeed.

So what’s this got to do with novellas? Well, it’s the subject of Badenheim 1939, a book first published in 1980, and recently re-released. The author, Aharon Appelfeld, was born in 1932 in the town of Czernovitz, Bukovina. This is now part of Moldova, but back then it was part of the troubled Austro-Hungarian Empire (see my column on Stefan Zweig for more of that sad story).

When the Nazis took over, Appelfeld’s mother was murdered, and he and his father were deported to the labour camps. Remarkably, Appelfeld escaped, though he was only eight years old. After living wild in the forests for three years, he was picked up by the Red Army and put to work as a kitchen-hand, almost mute after his years of solitary, feral life. He made it to Palestine in 1946, and still lives in Israel as a writer and academic.

Appelfeld was first championed in the English-speaking world by Philip Roth. His best-known novella (less than 150 pages of quite large type) describes almost a year in the life of a small Austrian resort town. At first it could be a year like any other. Doctor Pappenheim, the mercurial impresario, is organising the annual artistic festival. Various musicians and other performers slowly straggle into town. The two local prostitutes, who have become middle-aged and almost respectable through long residence, wander the streets without picking up any trade. Various low-level aristocrats and divorcees come to stay for their health.

But this is 1939, and almost all of the locals and visitors are Jewish. The government’s Sanitation Department is at work in the town, posting up orders and demanding everybody register with them. Soon there is talk of compulsory deportation to Poland. Contact with the outside world is cut off. And still everybody does their best to live a normal life.

It is this persistence of hope that is in some ways the most horrible thing in the book. Another writer brought to wide attention by Roth, the Czech novelist Jirí Weil, explored this magnificently in Life With a Star, one of last century’s saddest novels. So many people seem to have gone to their deaths in the concentration camps simply because they had too much hope in the future -- they thought everything would turn out well, that the Nazis honestly couldn’t be that bad -- and so instead of fighting or fleeing they lined up obediently and got on the trains to the east.

Badenheim 1939 is a great book, but also an oddly elliptical one. The original Hebrew title is Badenheim Ir Nofesh, which roughly translates as ‘Badenheim, Resort Town’. The year is not part of the title, but was added for the English-language translation. Nor are the Nazis named as such in the story itself; only their local aspect, the Sanitation Department, is described. We would also not know the final fate of the locals from the book alone.

This means that the novella, as originally intended, trades off some of its specific horror for a timelessness and relevance beyond its particular time and place. This translation, while excellent, narrows that focus to 1939. This only matters, of course, if we let ourselves forget just how easily it could all happen again.