Now 63, on a rare visit to London from his home outside Jerusalem to see a stage version at Riverside Studios of his novel Badenheim 1939, the award-winning writer is a benign figure: small, bespectacled, with tufts of white hair bordering his round bald head. (His friend Philip Roth once described him as having "the playfully thoughtful air of a benign wizard"). He is as diffident a talker as his writing is laconic, speaking hesitantly in a light voice.
"I was an only child of an upper middle-class assimilated Jewish family. My grandparents spoke Yiddish but it was forbidden in our home, where German was our first language." Home was in Czernowitz in the Bukovina, an easterly region of the Carpathian forestland in the foothills of the Tatra mountains. In his childhood it was part of Romania but in 1940 became part of the USSR. (It is now part of Moldavia.)
Before the war, the town produced an inordinate number of great writers, all Jewish, who made a significant contribution to German literature. One of them, Paul Celan, said it was a place where people and books lived. Gregor Von Rezzori, a generation older than Appelfeld, describes his own life there in the Twenties in an anti-Semitic family in his masterpiece Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. Rezzori recently wrote of returning there; Appelfeld has never dared return.
"I've written about 20 novels about it but I left when I was eight so my memories are actually very weak. The town was very important to me in trying to restore the life of my parents but I'm afraid to go back. I've been somewhere close - to Krakow. It's like a Jewish cemetery. The synagogues are still there, physically untouched, but there are no Jews."
Hiding in the Ukrainian countryside, Appelfeld always felt his parents would find him. "I was an only child and had been very spoiled. The warmth of my parents gave me the strength to survive - I always had the feeling they were somewhere, that they had not abandoned me." But they were dead, murdered in 1940.
Appelfeld survived among ferocious anti-Semites because he didn't look Jewish and he was very small. "My face wasn't Jewish and I spoke quite good Ukrainian, so I would go from village to village telling people I was a Ukrainian boy. I lived in the woods with people on the margins - the prostitutes, the witches, the robbers. They kept me only because I was small and they could put me through small windows. This was my function. I was a small animal."
Living such a dangerous lie, where the wrong word would be fatal, had a profound effect on Appelfeld. Although he could speak German, Ukrainian, Romanian and Polish, he didn't speak at all. "But then I wasn't expected to. I was just supposed to obey orders."
In 1944 he was liberated by the Russian army who took him on as a kitchen boy for two years. By the age of 14 he was in Naples, living on the beach. "I was a young Jewish orphan that nobody in Europe wanted. I was taken up by the Jewish Brigade of the British Army who arranged for my passage to Palestine." He arrived bewildered. "I was a European. I didn't know what I was doing in this hot country."
He remained mute. "Survivors of the Holocaust became dumb because the experience struck you dumb. And I wasn't used to speaking. So I had a lot of difficulty expressing myself, my feelings. I spoke all these languages but I couldn't read or write any of them. I had never attended school in my life so my vocabulary was very limited."
It took him years to get over his disorientation. "I was a lost person. I was very introverted. But slowly I began to speak - with a pronounced stutter. Not speaking usually means you're afraid to express yourself. But eventually I saw that Israel was a country where you didn't need to be afraid." He was adopted by a group of Jewish intellectuals, including Max Brod and others who had been friends of Franz Kafka.
"Max Brod and the others helped to rebuild my life," he says quietly. "These were wonderful people who were interested in my experiences during the war. I had a chance to reconstruct myself." He became a voracious reader and in Kafka's dreamlike stories and novels became too, he says, conscious of his own life.
In his late twenties he began to write. "My first language was German, but writing German in Jerusalem would have seemed a very odd thing to do." He wrote in Hebrew, finding that its structure allowed him to follow Kafka in using short sentences to develop a dry style. Primo Levi described him as "eloquent through reticence".
At first his novels weren't popular. "Israel in the late Fifties was a very heroic country. I wrote a small collection of books about refugees - smugglers and prostitutes - living a kind of bohemian anarchistic life on the shores of Tel Aviv. I introduced people who were not heroic."
Since then he has won many prestigious awards and his books have been translated into 26 languages. They include The Healer (shortly to be filmed as an Austro-British co-production), The Immortal Bartfuss and The Age of Sorrow, perhaps his finest novel. Badenheim 1939, dramatised by Sian Evans, is set in the seaside resort of Badenheim where wealthy Jews spend the summer. In the summer of 1939, supplies become short, more and more Jews arrive at the resort, eventually to be taken away in cattle trucks. Appelfeld is widely regarded as one of the most powerful writers on the Holocaust, although tellingly his books are about the before and after rather than the terrible thing itself. All are based in some way on his and his parents' experiences.
He combines writing with teaching Jewish literature - he has been visiting Professor at Harvard and Yale. Despite having written 35 books, he says he still finds writing difficult. "Because I came to written language very late, I struggle with every sentence. I write for four or five hours every morning, check it over in the evening and at the end of the day I have one paragraph."
Is he writing to bear witness? "Bear witness would be too strong for it. I don't have the feeling I'm a prophet. I'm writing because I'm a writer."
n 'The Immortal Bartfuss' and 'Unto the Soul' have just been published in Quartet paperback (pounds 7 and pounds 8 respectively).
n 'Badenheim 1939' is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds tomorrow to Sat (01284 769505), then at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield from 30 Nov to 2 Dec (0114-276 9922)Reuse content