Aharon Appelfeld

Portrait Aharon Appelfeld
© Hartwig Klappert

Aharon Appelfeld was born in 1932 near Bukowina. When he was just seven years old, the war broke out and soon afterwards his mother was murdered. He and his father were forced on a death march to the Ukrainian camp Transnistria. After escaping, he lived alone in the forests and in 1944 joined the Soviet troops as a scullion. He made his way to Palestine in 1946 via Romania, Yugoslavia and Italy. He studied Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he began to write.

His first short story collection was published in 1962 and has been followed by 35 other prose works, mostly novels. Until his retirement in 2001, Appelfeld taught Hebrew Literature at the Ben-Gurion-University in Beersheba. In his autobiographical novel »Sippur chajim« (1999, tr: »The Story of a Life: A Memoir«, 2003) the author describes the loss of language as a result of war and persecution. He grew up with his mother tongue, German, as well as with Yiddish, Ukrainian and Romanian, but during the war a silent observation became his means of survival: »I find talking difficult, which is no surprise: what else is there to say? Nothing.« Directed against this absence of language as well as against the ideology behind the radical new beginning in Israel, he began to compose his story: slowly and painstakingly he labored on a work full or erratic pictures and amazing observation in his newly-learned language, Hebrew. Still, laconic and often with a dark surrealism, his books revolve around the unspeakable describing first and foremost the prehistory and the aftermath of the Holocaust. As in the story »Badenheim Ir Nofesh« (1978, tr: »Badenheim 1939«, 1980) that earned him worldwide recognition. It describes the eerie idyll of an Austrian spa in 1939 in which the accustomed world of the Jewish guests collapses. Appelfeld’s most recently published German book was »Katerina« (2010) about a Ukrainian woman at the close of the 19th century who finds employment with a Jewish family. The young woman, who is by no means free of the anti-Semitic presentiments of her time, gradually develops more positive feelings towards the Jews, a turn which eventually lands her in trouble.

Appelfeld’s work has been compared to that of Kertész and Levi and has been translated into more than thirty languages. He has received numerous awards, including the National Jewish Book Award, the Israel Prize, the Prix Médicis Etranger and the Nelly-Sachs-Prize. Aharon Appelfeld lives in Jerusalem.

The author died on January 4, 2018. 

© internationales literaturfestival berlin