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Desperate Diseases Require Desperate Remedies
on 30 November 2010
In 1941, Axis forces invaded the part of modern-day Ukraine in which the city of Chernivtsi is situated, holding it until its "liberation" by the Red Army in 1944. As was the case throughout Poland, the Baltic States and the Soviet republics that were invaded, the many Jews living in the region were prime victims, and the great majority were killed. Aharon Appelfeld, born in Chernivtsi, was nine years old at the time of the invasion. He was placed in a labour camp with his father, but they became separated and he succeeded in fleeing to hide in the woods, ultimately surviving. Blooms of Darkness is not closely autobiographical, but the fictional story of 11 year old Hugo Mansfeld clearly reflects parts of Appelfeld's own story.
The novel opens some months into the occupation, in what we may take to be early 1942. The Jews of Chernivtsi have been concentrated in a ghetto; some, including Hugo's father, have been deported to labour camps; many children have been snatched to be asphyxiated in mobile gas chambers; all those remaining in the ghetto, adults and children, are being systematically removed to an unknown destination (in fact Transnistria). In a desperate attempt to preserve his life, Hugo's mother finds a hiding place for him in a brothel, in the custody of one of the whores, a one-time school friend, Mariana. Despite Mariana's profession, Hugo's mother has never renounced her friendship; her steadfastness will now be repaid.
Hugo has to spend most of his time in an unheated closet off Mariana's room. German soldiers, "entertained" by Mariana, regularly come within a few feet of him. He overhears all. One by one, the other whores learn of his presence, increasing the danger both to him and to Mariana as the Germans hunt down every last Jew and their protectors. Totally innocent at the outset, Hugo gradually comes to understand the nature of Mariana's work, her self-disgust, depression and resort to alcohol. Despite the haphazard nature of her provision for him, Hugo and Mariana become emotionally important to each other. He hears absolutely nothing of his parents, but realistic scenarios of what might have happened to them occur in his dreams.
As the tide of war turns, the business of the whorehouse falls off and it closes. Hugo and Mariana are then obliged to face the dangers of life on the outside.
With short, simple sentences and a brisk pace, the effect of this novel is reminiscent of a film, except that a film would place greater emphasis on dramatic incident and the horror of the situation. As readers, we are left to reflect on such matters for ourselves. Measures of Aharon Appelfeld's success with his story are regret that it is not more extended, and a hope that perhaps there might be a sequel.