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Writing and Erasing
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Photo courtesy of Gila Ramras-Rauch

"Miraculously, through the verbal path paved by one individual, we connect with past reality through fiction," wrote Dr. Gila Ramras-Rauch, the Lewis H. and Selma Weinstein Professor of Jewish Literature at Hebrew College, in the preface of her acclaimed literary analysis, Aharon Appelfeld: The Holocaust and Beyond (Indiana University Press, 1994). By poetic coincidence, such paths converged in Ramras-Rauch's first encounter with Appelfeld. They met, she recounts, at Ohio State University, where she was teaching in the early 1980s, and he had come to give a lecture. While walking together across campus, they talked about Bukovinia, Appelfeld's homeland, and she mentioned that her mother was born in Czernowitz.

Dr. Gila Ramras-Rauch once told Aharon Appelfeld (pictured with her here) that he writes a saga of the Jewish people in the 20th century."'Actually," I told him, 'it's not Czernowitz exactly, it was a very small village.' Sweetly—he's a very sweet person—he asked, 'Yes, what's the name of it?' So I said 'Jadova,' and he stopped and said 'I was born in Jadova.'"

These shared roots add a layer of depth to Ramras-Rauch's meticulously crafted Aharon Appelfeld, which was the first book to appear in English on Appelfeld's work and marks a decade in print this year. The study begins by tracing from Jadova (now part of the western Ukraine) Appelfeld's journey as a child survivor of the Holocaust: his expulsion to Trans-Dniestria during the war and three years of hiding; his immigration to Israel in 1946, at the age of 14; and, finally, his devotion to the Hebrew language and literary form. These biographical experiences are not chronicled in his fiction, yet, as Ramras-Rauch reveals, they are manifest on every page.

Winner of the Israel Prize for Literature in 1983, Appelfeld is today Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and resides in Jerusalem. His many novels, short stories and essays have been translated into numerous languages and have received international acclaim. His latest work, The Story of a Life: A Memoir, was published in October by Schocken Books.

Ramras-Rauch most recently met with Appelfeld this September at a conference in Paris, Aharon Appelfeld: Between Israel and Europe, organized by the University of Paris 8 and INALCO. She presented the paper "The Voice of the Silent Self." In the interview below, she shares with Hebrew College Today her insight into Appelfeld's life and works.

Aharon AppelfeldHebrew College Today: One of the challenges in talking about Appelfeld is where to place him in Hebrew literature. He's often characterized as a Holocaust writer, but in interviews he's quoted as saying he doesn't accept that label. How would you classify him?

Gila Ramras-Rauch: He is a Holocaust writer because he personally experienced the Holocaust, but beyond being a Holocaust writer he is a Jewish writer and he is a Central European Jewish writer in the tradition of Kafka and other Central European Jewish writers. He is Israeli, he writes in Hebrew. Historically, I would say that he is part of the Statehood Generation, which also includes the writers Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and Yehuda Amichai. Interestingly though, since the 1970s, when he moved [from poetry] into writing novellas and novels, Israel no longer is the subject matter of his stories. Since the 1970s, he is much more interested in what he calls the 100 years of Jewish solitude.

HCT: Can you talk about what that means—100 years of Jewish solitude?

GRR: The 20th century is a very baffling century. I think that he is interested definitely in what brought the Holocaust about. But beyond that, he's a writer who wrote about the pre-Holocaust and post-Holocaust for many years. While many of his stories are surrounding the experience of the Holocaust, the whole Jewish phenomenon in Europe interests him—antisemitism, Jewish assimilation, Jewish Hasidic elements, urban Judaism, intelligentsia—he's really trying to broaden the horizon. I told him once that he writes a saga of the Jewish people in the 20th century, both in Central Europe and Israel. And every book that he writes actually expands this act, even though his books are not long—each is another facet, another aspect of the Jewish experience.

HCT: In your book you address Appelfeld's ambivalence toward Jewish assimilation as a recurring theme in his stories. He expresses an admiration for assimilated Jews.

GRR: In many of his writings, in Badenheim or The Age of Wonders, he is fascinated by this culture. But at the same time, he knows that the assimilated Jew, the acculturated Jew will never be accepted by the gentile society. Imitating cultural European models was done to excess, and the idea of excess is very prominent in his writing—really almost in a tragic sense of not knowing the measure of things. Especially in Badenheim, it's very clear that all those characters are afflicted. This is the rootlessness and the clinging to models that actually don't give you a map for reality. So there is a certain sense of twilight.

HCT: You write that Appelfeld is one of the few writers centering their work on the Holocaust years who has a clear aesthetic credo.

GRR: Many first generation writers who survived the Holocaust came out with an autobiographical story of their survival, the history of their family. And some of them have exhausted the topic by telling the story, their story. Appelfeld from the very beginning doesn't go into a realistic depiction of the events, but, rather, writes short stories that can be interpreted in a much more metaphoric way. So instead of having personal experience qua personal experience, he reveals and conceals. By so doing he evokes the Holocaust without sometimes even relating to it directly. He has found a voice, he has found a style that is clear and beautiful and precise and at the same time very modernistic.

When I meet him, I say, "How are you Aharon?" and he will say, "Ani kotev u'mohek, I write and erase." Writing and erasing is part of his technique, part of his aesthetic experience. He in a way expresses, but I believe he suppresses, too.

HCT: Is there a religious dimension to his characters, in the nature of their quest? I'm thinking specifically of the way you describe his characters as being in constant movement, something you define as not just a physical state of existence but a state of mind.

GRR: I think it goes throughout his work. His characters are always on the move. "I move, it means I'm alive." And there's almost a fear. He is not religious. But there is definitely religiosity, the idea of something not connected with a particular faith. In this respect, the spiritual element is there and the quest is there. But we have to realize that this is an existential quest in the world that shattered all the tenets of civilization and culture.

HCT: You describe Appelfeld's literary world as a place where "there's no common space for the reader and the character to share." This is a world that is fantastical and unfamiliar, where there's no realistic sense of place or time. So he's deliberately distancing the reader?

GRR: Absolutely. What I like about him is that he's not sentimental. The idea of the distance is really the idea of perfecting your point of view and your work. You're a servant in the life of literature. I think we have to make a distinction between feeling and emotion. Feeling is love, hate, whatever. The emotive mode in works of art are sometimes seemingly distant, but they evoke within us something which is so deep, and Appelfeld falls into this category. There is no handkerchief needed when you read Appelfeld, but you are being moved. Great writers manage to point to or touch the human psyche and bring it a bit more to the foreground. This combination of a certain distance, the non-confessional nature of his fiction, the clear, crisp text is very moving in its own way. He creates a verbal construct that reflects a certain experience or nonexperience. But what is so great is the combination of experience and imagination. It's the metaphor for literature or any form of art.

HCT: Why were you first drawn to Appelfeld?

GRR: This is a question that I have been asking myself. I was born in Israel. My parents are not survivors; they first came to Israel because they wanted to come to Israel. But part of my parents' families perished in the Shoah. In the last 20 years I came out with Facing the Holocaust, an anthology, and I came out with Aharon Appelfeld, and now I'm working on a book about Ida Fink, who is a Holocaust writer and lives and writes in Israel. Why am I, an Israeli, Israeli-born, why am I so attracted to this? There's a dark fascination with the subject. I think I miss the family I never met. There are roads that I'll never be able to access. I can readily go and see where my grandparents were born, but there's nothing there except this prominent sense of pain that the roots were cut. There's also a certain element of mystery, and I combine my love for literature with this enigma of how does one find words or music or color to express something that really challenges the possibility of expression. It's not just that you choose something. A certain subject visits you and asks you to do some research, and you comply.