Badenheim is a quiet, idyllic holiday town in Eastern Europe. The 'leader' of the town, Dr Pappenheim, is busy preparing for the annual festival, writing letters and sending telegrams to beg and plead for musicians and artists from Vienna.
While the preparations are under way, the Sanitation Department begins quietly undertaking a rigorous inspection of each and every house and shop in Badenheim. Among the many questions asked is how many and who of the residents are Jewish. The vacationers and locals alike think nothing of the questions, nonchalantly confirming or denying their religion, and returning to their food, their wine, their entertainment. Here and there, a few people discuss the increasing powers of the Sanitation Department - they have just recently closed the Post Office - but nobody seems to mind. Badenheim is quiet and peaceful, and that is how they like it.
Time passes. The impresario, Dr Pappenheim, is still writing letters, but he senses that they are going off into the void, never to return. A few - very few - letters are still allowed into Badenheim, but for the most part, the Sanitation Department has closed off the city. Guards are posted to deny entry or exit to any man, woman or child of Jewish descent. It happens so slowly that nobody really notices, but at one stage, almost all of the non-Jewish people have gone, and of the tiny trickle of visitors allowed into Badenheim, every person is a Jew.
There is a quiet horror to Badenheim 1939. Throughout this very short book, it seems as though with each page, the oppression and terror of World War II is approaching the Jewish people of Badenheim, but they never see it. With every freedom slowly being denied - the shops are closed, the gates are sealed, outside communication is forbidden - the reader is left to wonder if this time, if this time when the Sanitation Department closes the pastry shop, say, will they understand? But they never do. Everything happens over such a long period of time, and so quietly, that nobody really seems to realise when they are suddenly trapped, except for a few minor characters who are slowly going mad, the cracks in the calm facade they have wrapped themselves in widening with every minute.
This book is most effective because we know what happened to the Jews post-1939. We know where they are going, and what will likely happen to them. The Sanitation Department assures them that they will be transplanted to Poland, and everything will be fine. They believe because they have to believe. Towards the end of the novel, the razor wire, the guns, the dogs all make an appearance. To ignore what is happening is suicidal, and yet they do. After all, how could a race of people imagine that they would be persecuted in such a terrifying manner? Surely, their minds would shied away from such horrible information, from the mere idea that a man - a country - wanted to eradicate six million of them? And yet, that is what happened, and that is how the novel ends, a perfect, bleak, dark ending that is all the more horrifying for how completely reasonable every single tiny little step leading up to their incarceration inside a derelict train, headed, presumably, for Auschwitz.
Badenheim 1939 is a powerful book because it shows how easy it is to accept something unacceptable, if it is presented in small, reasonable, easily palatable pieces. None of these characters are overly bad, or good - they are absolutely normal. They squabble, they argue, they love, they laugh, they sing, they cry. In fact, throughout the entire novel, nothing untoward happens to any of them - except for the encroaching holocaust.