A random paragraph from the first half of this book:
In a forest no one dies of hunger. Here was a thicket of blueberries, and
alongside the trunk of a tree, a strawberry patch. I even found a pear tree.
If not for the cold at night, I would have slept more. At that time, I still
didn`t have a clear notion of death. I`d already seen many dead people in the
ghetto and the camp, and I knew that a dead person doesn`t get back up on his
feet and is eventually put in a pit. Yet I still didn`t grasp death as an end.
I continued to expect my parents to come and collect me. This expectation,
this tense waiting, stayed with me throughout the war, and it would return to
overcome me whenever despair sunk its talons into me.
I could have chosen almost any passage from this limpidly beautiful memoir by Aharon Appelfeld, of whom I had not heard before I read this book, but whose many novels I shall now hunt down.
Managing to escape from the death camps, he wandered the forests of Ukraine for two years, living, as he says, off the land - though in one almost humourously bizarre chapter he tells us of his time living as an unpaid skivvy with the local prostitute, who was often drunk, on her small farm (he was still a boy of about 10) until her house burnt down and he escaped back into the countryside, where he felt most at home. (I lived for over two years in Ukraine and spent a short holiday in the general area of the Carpathians where Appelfeld was born. His descriptions early in the book of village life in and around what was then Czernowitz, in the Bukovina region of Rumania, chime with my memories of that area around W Ukraine.)
In fact a reverence for the land and for nature pervades this memoir, his dealings with people always qualified by a healthy, and hardly surprising, reticence, not to mention awkwardness, especially in his younger years.
What elevates this book into art, a modest masterpiece of remembrance, is the elusive, subtle quality of the prose; we are in the hands of a craftsman, who is aiming for a `poetic` truth, but truth nonetheless. It is not exactly a `Holocaust Memoir`, as his actual memories of that baleful time are either too misty to recall or alluded to in passing when required, all of which gives the book a poignancy which few others of its kind possess.
He rarely - at least in the first half of the book, before he reaches Palestine - specifies dates or place-names. The effect of this is to imbue the work with an impressionistic, dreamlike air at times, and which also echoes his wanderings.
Things change when he finally gets to Palestine at the end of the war, a quiet, reserved 13 year-old. The rest of the book is the moving tale of his new life in a new land, his sometimes rebuffed attempts to fit in, and the eventual relative peace
he finds, through a few trusted friends, and not least through discovering his voice as a writer. By his own admission he mistrusts writers who use too many words and prefers to suggest, to imply, rather than to show or reveal too much. There are now (thankfully) countless books of Holocaust survival, but few can be as touching, or as artful, as this book of `beauty from ashes` as Isaiah almost has it.
Another quote from much later in the book:
I am very familiar with that feeling of superficiality. When you`re finally
ready to speak about those days, memory grows faint and the words stick in your
throat. So you wind up saying nothing of value. Sometimes, by chance, the words
start to flow, and then you go on and on as if a blocked channel has been
cleared. But you immediately realise that this is a superficial, chronological
recounting that does not come from the depths of your being. The words flow,
but they reveal nothing. When you`ve finished, you feel confused and embarrassed.
Aharon Appelfeld has found words, just enough, and at least one reader is eternally grateful to him. It would be good to be able to say that another memoir of those
years of persecution and terror were superfluous, but, sadly, there are generations growing up now who are in woeful ignorance of those times, and what people - in particular the Jewish people, let us stress - suffered; not to mention those beyond the pale who deny such horrors took place...
This memoir makes a thing of beauty from a time of ugliness and fear - a work of art in fact. If such considered artistry and beauty cannot be brought from the ashes of such terrible depravity, then the millions who died really did die for nothing.
We must not forget. Works of truth and grace and tact such as this may help us not only to remember but, perhaps, to treat our fellow beings with care, empathy and respect.