BY AHARON APPELFELD, WEIDENFELD AND NICOLSON, NEW YORK, 1988.
Recently, I attended a dedication ceremony in Rhode Island for a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. At the beginning, it was dreadful. As each of the state's politicians and heavy hitters was introduced, he strode purposefully to the podium, proclaiming his solidarity with the victims and survivors, his unwavering support for the state of Israel, and his commitment that such a tragedy would never happen again. Next came the leaders of the Jewish community, who, in turn, thanked the politicians, the donors, the committees, the contractors, their parents, and everyone else whose name they had neglected to mention (including mine). One speaker, carried away by his own eloquence, alluded to the traditions of the Jewish people that had been kept alive for "over one hundred thousand years." One member of the audience was heard to mutter that he didn't know the dinosaurs were Jewish.
Suddenly, a survivor was at the podium. Without accompaniment,
he began to chant the requiem for the dead—El Moleh Rahamim.
His clear tenor soared heavenward, tearing through the denial and isolation
of the assembled crowd. His krechtsn—his broken sobs—his tears,
his fury--all reached their peak in the middle of the prayer, as he interjected
his own words into the midst
of the traditional Hebrew prayer: "the souls of those who were killed and slaughtered by the murderous Nazis..." Gradually, his cries decrescendoed to a pleading whimper, as he begged for eternal life and rest in the Garden of Eden for the Six Million.
In a reserved section sat Rhode Island's survivors and their children. A few days earlier, many of them had told of their suffering during the Holocaust in a documentary for public television. They spoke, some in tears, some with detachment, of children torn from mothers, of brothers and sisters shot before their eyes, of rape and other degradations, of hunger and pain. They spoke of despair and of the determination to survive. After the fourth or fifth story, it became too much to hear. Multiply these stories by six million, and the reaction would be an ashamed and anguished "Enough, already!"
That was the response of Bartfuss, the central figure of Aharon
Appelfeld's latest book. Appelfeld is one of Israel's premier
novelists, a survivor of the Holocaust, and also a literary survivor in a land where more books are sold per capita than anywhere else in the world, and where every reader is a critic.
Bartfuss lives in isolatian from his family and fellow traders. He smokes in the privacy of his bedroom, roams the beaches of Jaffa and Netanya, sips coffee alone in cafes. Like Appelfeld, he will not speak of his experiences in the Holocaust. He hoards his money, resisting the attempts of his wife and daughters to tap into his treasure. Occasionally, his anomie and ennui are interrupted by sparks of fire and life. He is suddenly overwhelmed by a need to communicate with his retarded daughter, and tries to buy her a watch, but she flees from him. Unprovoked, he strikes a fellow survivor whose isolation mirrors his own. He becomes obsessed with Theresa, a woman with whom he had shared a passion for The Brothers Karamazov when they were herded together in a warehouse in Dorfenziehl. "Don't you remember me? We were in Italy together," he asks again and again. But she keeps her past buried, distracting herself with sado-masochistic relationships.
Memory battles repression. Bursts of passionate intensity reveal a smouldering rage that would, if allowed to erupt, destroy the man and the world about him.
Claude Lanzmann, in his fifteen-hour film Shoah, attempted to chronicle the Holocaust with interminable searing interviews. Lucy Davidowicz, in her monumental The War Against the Jews, documents the atrocities of the Holocaust in exquisite detail. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, maintains massive files on every aspect of the Holocaust. Lest we forget.
Appelfeld's characters stand about, like figures in a painting from Picasso's blue period, expressionless, hollow-eyed, unrelating. Lest we remember.