The Presence of Absence


Badenheim 1939
By Aharon Appelfeld
Translated by Dayla Bilu
148 pages. David R. Godine. $12.95

In every generation it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we ourselves had experienced the Exodus from Egypt. For many, the imperative to imagine oneself back into the Exodus has resulted in an effort to trace the contemporary relevance of the Exodus paradigm, to see subsequent Jewish persecutions and political struggles in the light of that founding biblical event. For some, the Holocaust followed by the rebirth of the State of Israel reflects this Passover pattern of oppression followed by redemption and renewal. The reflective Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim Ir Nofesh (Badenheim 1939) paints a disturbing portrait of a reversal of the Exodus paradigm. This is a Holocaust novel that that can be understood as addressing the subject of the Exodus only insofar as Passover, the Jewish festival of Spring, is conspicuously absent from the text:


Spring returned to Badenheim. In the country church next to the town the bells rang. The shadows of forest retreated to the trees. The sun scattered the remnants of the darkness and its light filled the main street from square to square. It was a moment of transition. The town was about to be invaded by vacationers. Two inspectors passed through an alley, examining the flow of the sewage in the pipes. The town, which had changed its inhabitants many times in the course of the years, had kept its modest beauty.

With intimations of spring and with a sense of foreboding—so begins Appelfeld’s celebrated work about an Austrian-Jewish resort town on the eve of World War II. Light fills “the main street from square to square” amid repeated references to darkness, to the shadows of the forest. Spring may have returned to Jewish Badenheim, but the town church still defines the town borders, its bells pealing. “It was a moment of transition,” the narrator declares. But as the novel progresses, it becomes quite clear this transition will entail no regular seasonal progression. The two inspectors that examine the sewage flow in the paragraph above prefigure the more menacing and ever-expanding presence of the Sanitation Department, Appelfeld’s euphemistic appellation for the Nazi occupation. Unbeknownst to the assimilated Jews who have gathered in Badenheim to enjoy the cultural benefits of the Badenheim spring art festival, the town is about to be “invaded” and transformed into a Nazi transit camp.

The opening paragraph of Badenheim 1939 typifies not only the workings of this novel, but Appelfeld’s overall approach to the subject of the Holocaust. Over and over again in his ground-breaking Holocaust fiction—Appelfeld was the first Israeli fiction writer to confront the Holocaust and make it a legitimate subject for Hebrew literary art—Appelfeld employs a strategy of intimation, indirection, and ironic understatement. There are virtually no Nazis and no concentration camp scenes in Appelfeld’s considerable corpus. Relying on the retrospective knowledge of the reader, he writes about the Holocaust without writing about the Holocaust

By extension, I would argue, the novel addresses the subject of Passover and the Exodus specifically by not directly addressing Passover and the Exodus. Silence reigns in this novel as much as speech, absence as much as presence. Over and over again, Appelfeld refers to spring—to melting clouds, pouring sunlight, intoxicating airs. Here is a Jewish spring festival that is anything but Passover. The star performer at the Badenheim cultural festival is a yanuka—a young Polish singer of Yiddish songs, whose childish role is remarkable precisely because it has nothing to do with the traditional Jewish commemoration of spring and with the mitzvah of teaching children the story of the Exodus. Frau Millbaum, a Jewish aristocrat unhappily interned at Badenheim, haughtily refers to her Jewish inferiors, assembled at a banquet held in honor of the yanuka, as “asafsuf”—the biblical Hebrew word used in Numbers 11:4 to refer to the mixed multitude, the riff-raff of the Israelites who never ceased to lust and desire for their long-lost Egyptian food. Documented in the novel, however is a reverse exodus: not the story of Jewish migration from slavery to freedom, but rather, the steady restriction of Jewish freedoms for the sake of deportation and annihilation. As their contact with the outside world is severed and their liberties curtailed, Appelfeld’s Badenheimers are plagued by dark thoughts and worries. Nevertheless, they hold fast to their petit-bourgeois ways—their disdain for the vulgar Polish Jew (the Ostjude ) and for all forms of antiquated religious observance is combined with their love of music, mineral baths, and rich desserts. The yanuka’s Yiddish songs arouse a vague sense of nostalgia in the vacationers, but no real sense of their connection to the course of Jewish history. Instead, as the novel advances, the vacationers teach the yanuka to be more and more like them. Plied with sweets, indulged, and petted, he forgets his Yiddish and becomes completely estranged from his traditional origins.

Halfway through the novel, as spring begins to give way to summer, corresponding perhaps, in Jewish calendar terms, to the advent of the holiday of Shavuot, the old rabbi of Badenheim suddenly reappears, elderly, paralyzed, speaking a mixture of Yiddish and Hebrew completely unintelligible to the Badenheimers. “Do the people intend to keep the commandments?” asks this erstwhile Moses, giving the law, so to speak, to his motley community. Sadly, the residents of Badenheim, having lost their connections with their Jewish heritage, cannot understand a word of the rabbi’s instruction. Nor can he understand, in his uncompromising anger at their religious laxity, the descent into bondage and despair they are all about to endure. The half-light of Badenheim deceives until the bitter end, as a string of filthy freight cars approaches. “‘Get in!’ yelled invisible voices.” We never really see the face of oppression in this novel. Neither do we see the face of salvation, the outstretched arm of God, the signs and wonders. Instead, we see a paralytic Moses and a mixed Jewish multitude, being poured “as easily as grains of wheat into a funnel”—a fitting hametzdik image, to be sure, for this novelistic depiction of anti-Exodus.

Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright Israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.