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Authors: Aharon Appelfeld

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Literary

The Story of a Life

BOOK: The Story of a Life
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ALSO BY AHARON APPELFELD

 

Badenheim 1939
The Age of Wonders
Tzili: The Story of a Life
The Retreat
To the Land of the Cattails
The Immortal Bartfuss
For Every Sin
The Healer
Katerina
Unto the Soul
Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth
The Iron Tracks
The Conversion

 
Preface
 

THE PAGES BEFORE YOU are segments of contemplation and memory. Memory is elusive and selective; it holds on to what it chooses to hold on to. I won’t say that it retains only what is good and pleasant. Very like a dream, memory takes specific details out of the viscous flow of events—sometimes tiny, seemingly insignificant details—stores them deeply away, and at certain times brings them up to the surface. Like a dream, memory also tries to imbue events with some meaning.

Ever since my childhood, I have felt that memory is a living and effervescent reservoir that animates my being. When I was still a child, I would sit and visualize the summer holidays at my grandparents’ home in the country. For hours I’d sit by the window and picture the journey there. Everything that I recalled from previous vacations would return to me in the most vivid way.

Memory and imagination sometimes dwell together. In those long-buried years it was as if they competed. Memory
was tangible, as if solid. Imagination had wings. Memory pulled toward the known, and imagination sailed toward the unknown. Memory always brought me pleasure and tranquillity. Imagination would take me from place to place, but eventually would depress me.

At times I learned that there are people who live solely by the power of imagination. My uncle Herbert was like that. He had inherited considerable wealth, but because he lived in a world of imagination, he wasted everything and was completely impoverished. When I got to know him better, he was already a poor man, living off the goodwill of his family, but even in his poverty he did not cease to dream. His gaze would be fixed far beyond you, and he always spoke about the future, as if the present or the past didn’t exist.

It’s amazing how clear even my most distant and hidden childhood memories can be, in particular those connected to the Carpathian Mountains and the broad plains stretching out at their foothills. During those last vacations before the war, our eyes would devour the mountains and plains with a fearsome longing, as if my parents knew that these were the last holidays, and that from now on life would be hell.

When World War II broke out, I was seven years old. The sequence of time became confused—no more summer and winter, no more long visits to my grandparents in the country. Our life was now crammed into a narrow room. For some time we were in the ghetto, and at the end of autumn we were thrown out of it. For weeks we were on the road, and then, eventually, in the camp, from which I managed to escape.

During the war I was not myself, but like a small creature that has a burrow, or, more precisely, a few burrows. Thoughts and feelings were greatly constricted. In truth, sometimes there welled up within me a painful sense of astonishment
at why I had been left alone. But these reflections would fade with the mists of the forest, and the animal within me would return and wrap me in its fur. Of the war years I remember little, as if they were not six consecutive years. It’s true that sometimes images surface from the heavy mist: a dark figure, a hand that had been charred, a shoe of which nothing was left but shreds. These pictures, sometimes as fierce as the blast from a furnace, fade away quickly, as if refusing to reveal themselves, and again there’s the same black tunnel that we call the war. This is the limit of conscious memory. But the palms of one’s hands, the soles of one’s feet, one’s back, and one’s knees remember more than memory. Had I known how to draw from them, I would have been overwhelmed with what I have seen. On some occasions I have been able to listen to my body, and then I would write a few chapters, but even they are just fragments of a pulsing darkness that will always be locked inside me.

After the war, I was on the Italian coast for some months and then spent some time on the Yugoslavian coast. Those were months of wonderful oblivion. The water, the sun, and the sand kneaded and soothed us until nightfall. And at night we would sit by the fire, frying fish and drinking coffee. Roaming around the beaches were all kinds of people who had been affected by the war: musicians, jugglers, opera singers, actors, gloomy fortune-tellers, smugglers, and thieves. Among this motley crowd there were also child artists, only six or seven years old, who were adopted by corrupt “managers” who would drag them around from place to place. Every night there would be a performance, sometimes even two.

Then oblivion constructed its deeply fortified basements, and soon after that, we took them to Palestine. When we arrived there, oblivion was already solidified in all of us.
From this standpoint, Israel was a kind of continuation of Italy. Oblivion found fertile ground. Of course, the ideology prevalent in those years aided and abetted this locking up of memory, but the command to erect walls did not come from the outside only. Sometimes things I’d seen during the war would slip through from the walled-in basements of memory, demanding the right to exist. But they did not have the power to bring down the pillars of oblivion and the will to live. And life itself said then: Forget! Be absorbed! The kibbutzim and the various youth villages were veritable greenhouses for cultivating oblivion.

For many years I was sunk deep within the slumber of oblivion. My life flowed on the surface. I grew used to the cramped and moldy basements within me. True, I was always afraid of them. It seemed to me, not without reason, that the dark creatures seething there were growing stronger, and that someday, when the place became too narrow for them, they would burst out onto the surface. And, indeed, such outbursts did occur from time to time, but the powers of suppression held them in, and the basement was again shut up under lock and key.

For how many years did this continue—this distance, this division from
there
to
here
, from below to above? The story of this struggle is in these pages, and it stretches across a broad canvas: memory and oblivion, the sense of chaos and impotence on one side and the desire for a meaningful life on the other. This is not a book that asks questions and responds to them. These pages are a description of a struggle, if one can borrow Kafka’s expression. All aspects of the soul join in this struggle: the memory of home and of parents, the sheer pastoral beauty of the Carpathians, my grandparents, and the many lights that streamed into my soul. After them came the war and all the destruction it wrought, and the scars that it
left. And, finally, the long years in Israel: working the land, learning the language, overcoming the confusion of youth, attending university, and beginning to write.

This book is not a summary, but an attempt (and perhaps a desperate attempt) to integrate the different parts of my life and to reconnect them to the wellsprings of their being. The reader should not expect a sequential and precise account in this story of a life. These are the regions of my life that have been packed together in memory, and they are alive and pulsating. Much has been lost and much corroded by oblivion. At first it seemed that very little remained, and yet, when I laid one piece alongside another, I saw that not only have they been made whole by the years, but they have even achieved some level of meaning.

1
 

AT WHAT POINT does my memory begin? It sometimes seems to me as if it began only when I was four, when we set off for the first time, Mother, Father, and I, for a vacation into the heart of the shadowy, moist forests of the Carpathians. But I sometimes think that memory began to bud from within me before that, in my room, next to the double-glazed window that was decorated with paper flowers. Snow is falling, and fleecy soft flakes are slowly coming down from the sky with a sound so faint that you cannot hear it. For hours I sit and gaze in wonder, until I merge with the white flow and drift off to sleep.

A clearer memory is linked for me to one word, too long and rather hard to pronounce,
Erdbeeren
, which means “strawberries” in German. It is spring. Mother is standing at the open window. I am perched on a chair next to her, and suddenly, from a side alley, there appears a young Ruthenian girl. She is carrying a broad, circular wicker basket full of strawberries on her head.
“Erdbeeren!”
Mother calls out. Her
call is not directed at the girl but at Father, who is in the back garden and very near the girl. Father stops her, she lifts the basket off her head, and they speak for a moment. Father laughs, draws out a banknote from the pocket of his jacket, and presents it to the girl, who, in exchange, gives him the basket with all the strawberries inside it. Father comes up the steps and enters the house. Now one can see it close up: the basket is not deep but extremely wide; the berries are tiny and red and still alive with the scent of the forest. I so want to put out my hand and take a handful from the basket, but I know that this is completely forbidden, and I restrain myself. Still, my mother understands me, and she takes a handful from the basket, rinses them, and serves me them in a small bowl. I’m so happy that I can hardly breathe.

Here the ritual begins: Mother sprinkles powdered sugar on the tiny fruit, adds cream, and serves up the delicacy to each of us. There’s no need to ask for another portion: Mother ladles it out, more and more, and we feast on it with great relish, as if we are about to finish the strawberries. But there is nothing to worry about, the basket is still full, and even if we go on eating all through the night, it won’t get any emptier. “A pity there are no guests,” says Mother. Father laughs quietly, as if a partner to a conspiracy. And the following day, too, we eat more overflowing portions, though distractedly and no longer with a ravenous appetite. Mother puts the remaining strawberries in the pantry. Later I saw, with my very own eyes, how the glorious berries had turned grayish and had shriveled up; for the rest of the day, I felt sad whenever I remembered them. But the woven basket, made of simple twigs, remained in our home for many days, and every time I glanced at it, I would remember how it had looked like a red crown when it rested on the head of the Ruthenian peasant girl.

 

CLEARER MEMORIES are the walks along the banks of the river, on the paths by the fields, and on the grassy meadows. I see us climb a hill, sit on top of it, and gaze around. Speaking little, my parents listen attentively. With Mother it is more obvious. When she listens, her large eyes are wide open, as if trying to take in everything around her. At home, too, there is more quiet than talking. Nothing spoken—no phrases—remain in my memory from those distant days, only Mother’s gaze. It was filled with so much softness and tender solicitude that I feel it to this very day.

OUR HOUSE IS SPACIOUS and has many rooms. One balcony faces the street, and the other one, the public park. The drapes are long, trailing on the parquet floor. When the maid changes them, a scent of starch fills the whole house. But even more than the drapes, I love the floor—or, rather, the carpet that covers the floor. On its floral patterns I construct streets and houses from wooden blocks and populate them with stuffed bears and tin dogs. The carpet is thick and soft, and I sink into it for hours, pretending that I’m traveling on a train, crossing continents, and eventually arriving at my grandfather’s village.

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