Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of D.R. GodineBadenheim, 1939
Boston : D.R. Godine, 1980

Reviewed by:
Mark Davis

Sacred Heart Prep
Atherton, California


Self-absorption without self-awareness is a dangerous state. One turns inward, accepting shared reality only insofar as it contributes to one’s pathologies. One misses clues that may lead to enlightenment, health, happiness, safety. One misses not only “the forest for the trees” — one misses the trees and the forest altogether. Even daylight is further burden, extra weight. Imagine a world where conversations are disconnected and meaningless; art, music, science, and literature represent boats and buoys of the ego, of individual egos adrift in a disconnected, discontinuous culture. In this discordant world, family life is further strife — the best one can hope for is total paralysis; and religion is mocked and shunned. This imagined world is easy to imagine. It is the world in which we live where “Image is Everything” and the Word is dying drop by drop. It is also the world represented in Aharon Appelfeld’s first book to be published in English, Badenheim 1939 (Godine, Boston: 1980), a world where

The people were being driven out of their minds by their longings. They stood by the gates and asked: ‘When will we leave? When?’ . . . They were like sick people asking about their illness. If the doctor refused to explain, maybe they could get something out of the nurse? (79)

Even the most robust characters in this novel become invalids, and the invalids go mad. Yet the horror that they face upon their forced and impending return to Poland is never uttered, never realized. Nowhere in this 148-page novella do the words “Nazi” or “death camp” or “ghetto” appear, though on page 1 and later on page 12 we learn that “Rumors were rife.” 

Appelfeld is a child survivor of the Shoah. But this Israeli novelist’s work is unique in that he never shows the horrors that he and his fellow survivors witnessed. The mythical resort village of Badenheim, in a scenic valley near Vienna, represents a place in the modern mind where we all dwell much too often: a little state called denial. No one in Appelfeld’s fictional world of placid, self-indulgent splendor carries a clue that the Holocaust is at hand. Rather, as one character puts it, “‘We’ll have to get used to the new way of life,’” as if their transition from town to ghetto will be a mild inconvenience. In the end, when the villagers and vacationers of Badenheim are forced into “four filthy freight cars, . . . they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel.” The absence of direct references to the Holocaust calls the reader’s attention to the vital signs of the precipitous event. Appelfeld uses image patterns and values in ways that enlist, or at least encourage, active participation in the reader who, knowing how the story ends (six million dead), searches for meaning from the opening lines. Tracing two recurring symbolic patterns, for instance the qualities of light and the image of the forest, one discovers that this magnificent novella essentially opens a closed universe, and closes an open one. In other words, the author reveals the world of the Holocaust at the same time as he dissembles the world of denial. 

As Irving Howe has said, “Aharon Appelfeld is one of the best novelists alive.” Odd then that my students and I are among the few people I know who have even heard of him. I hope you will add at least one of his novels to your reading list.


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