Boyd Tonkin: A witness for a younger Jewish generation
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Tuesday 15 May 2012
Aharon Appelfeld, who lives outside Jerusalem, was born in 1932 in Czernowitz in Bukovina, now in Ukraine. German was his mother tongue. "I come from a deeply assimilated Jewish home," he told me last week. "My parents thought of themselves as Europeans, not particularly Jewish. But my grandparents were very observant Jews."
In 1941, after the Nazi-allied Romanian army occupied Czernowitz, young Aharon escaped from the ghetto and went on the run, a wild boy for whom one false move would have meant death. "In the forest," he explains, "a group of criminals adopted me... I was a poor animal, a poor slave, doing what they ordered me to do." Later he met the village prostitute, with whom he sought refuge for five months. That episode lends Blooms of Darkness an autobiographical core but, as Appelfeld always insists: "I'm not writing memoirs – I'm using pieces of my own experience."
Completely uneducated, he came alone in 1946 to British-mandate Palestine, two years before the creation of Israel. He learned Hebrew in part by copying out the Bible: "I went from chapter to chapter, book to book... I wanted to affiliate myself to the Hebrew language."
His hard-won tongue gave him first tools, then wings. "Most of the Hebrew writers were born in Israel," he says. "I'm actually the only one who adopted Hebrew as my language... My task was to combine the Hebrew language with my horrible experience."
In youthful Israel, an "idealistic, socialistic country", memories of the genocide were taboo. "The slogan was, 'Forget it! You should begin again.'" Now, however, those once-buried traumas feed a rich culture of memory. "It's a very great change. The younger generation are coming to my books now in a very passionate way."
They learn from his novels, deeply etched with grief but also with hope against all odds, the stories of pain that their silenced survivor-forebears never told: "It was like a dark hole. But now those children are in their forties and fifties, and they are coming to my books." Every week, he receives letters which say, in essence: "Now your books are my parents."
A longer interview with Aharon Appelfeld will appear in The Independent's Radar magazine on Saturday 19 May
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