Aharon Appelfeld, 85; Holocaust survivor chronicled its traumas

Mr. Appelfeld, in an undated photo.
Frédéric Brenner
Mr. Appelfeld, in an undated photo.

WASHINGTON — Aharon Appelfeld, who leaped out a window, was taken in by a criminal gang, and found refuge with a prostitute to survive the Holocaust — all before turning 14 — died Jan. 4 at a hospital in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv. He was 85.

Mr. Appelfeld later drew on his childhood experiences to craft lean, dreamlike novels that made him one of Israel’s most acclaimed writers. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Romania, he wrote more than 40 books in Hebrew, a language he taught himself by copying out parts of the Bible as a teenager in the Israeli army.

Nearly all his novels, stories, and essays concerned the Holocaust, although Mr. Appelfeld preferred to say that his focus was far broader: Jewish loneliness, immigration and — as he once joked to The New York Times — ‘‘trivialities,’’ the depiction of ‘‘small, ordinary, unheroic people.’’


Unlike Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel, fellow chroniclers of the Holocaust, Mr. Appelfeld rarely ventured into historical analysis or first-person anecdote. Instead, the murder of 6 million European Jews hung ominously in the background of his books, addressed obliquely through the presence of dirtied trains, curls of smoke, and characters with disabilities or missing limbs.

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‘‘The reality of the Holocaust surpassed any imagination,’’ Mr. Appelfeld told novelist and admirer Philip Roth in a 1988 interview, explaining why he had not yet written a memoir about his experiences. ‘‘If I remained true to the facts, no one would believe me.’’

Mr. Appelfeld did eventually write his memoir — titled ‘‘The Story of a Life,’’ it was translated into English in 2004 — but he had already drawn from memory in novellas such as ‘‘Tzili’’ (1982), about a Jewish girl who is left to fend for herself after German forces invade her home town, and ‘‘Badenheim 1939,’’ which introduced him to Western readers when it was translated into English in 1980.

Considered a classic of Holocaust literature, “Bedenheim 1939” depicted a Jewish resort near Vienna at the onset of World War II. Nazis are not mentioned by name, but Mr. Appelfeld’s idyllic, bourgeois world is slowly turned into a nightmare, as the town’s Jewish residents are forced to register in a ‘‘Golden Book,’’ barred from leaving the community, and then, at the novella’s close, ushered onto ‘‘four filthy freight cars’’ without realizing their final destination.

‘‘If the coaches are so dirty,’’ one character says, ‘‘it must mean that we have not far to go.’’


Mr. Appelfeld received many of his country’s highest literary honors, but Israeli critics had initially urged him to become more political, to write about Zionism rather than focusing more broadly on Judaism. Better yet, some said, he ought to avoid the Holocaust altogether and look forward rather than back.

‘‘Everywhere the slogan was ‘Forget,’” Mr. Appelfeld once told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, ‘‘but I wanted to remember. To be close to people who went through experiences similar to mine. Even later on, I did not want Israeli ‘localism.’ I wanted to be me. A stubborn child.’’