Sitting in an auditorium, his voice barely audible, Aharon Appelfeld transformed the large room into a deeply personal, intimate space. While his answers often took long detours, they ultimately led us to precious, previously unknown truths about his world.
It’s a rare and coveted place to sit right next to Aharon Appelfeld. In your writing, childhood always appears as a pure, beautiful island that nothing can touch. Even your characters who are murderers, who are criminals, when they remember their childhoods, they suddenly inhabit this calm space. What parts of this island are autobiographical and how do you forge it? How do you manage to interject it into each one of your works? What is the real island that you are referring to?
Immediately, I get a real question, a tough question. I was born many years ago—many many years ago—in a town named Czernowitz. It was a very beautiful small town between East and West Europe. Between 50 and 60 percent of the population were Jewish—a town with a lot of assimilated Jews. The town itself had a lot of schools, two Latin gymnasiums, a large university, and most of the Jews living there attended these schools. It was a very European town with a bit of the smell of the East, of the Slavic countries, Ruthenians. The population was Jews, Ruthenians, Romanians, and all kinds of small nations. So it’s a multilanguage region. I was the only son, very spoiled, and I used to spend a lot of time with my parents on vacations. We used to travel to my grandparents, who were living in the Carpathians. We used to walk a lot, meet a lot of people. Czernowitz was a very warm home. The streets were very warm. This was until ’41, when the Germans entered and immediately there was a ghetto and we were pushed into the ghetto and then to the railway station. I lost my mother at the beginning of the war. [End Page 434] She was killed. I remained with my father, so we were pushed into these cattle trains to the East, to Ukraine, and we came to this small camp. It was ’41, the fences were not electrified. I was separated from my father and I was eight and a half years old. There I was, people are dying, starving and dying, and I was alone. I decided that I would go under the fence and run away. I was lucky. I had a round face with blond hair. Blond hair, blue eyes—and another thing, I was fluent in the Ukrainian language because the maids in our homes, they were Ukrainians. So it was. There it ended. In ’41 a wonderful childhood ended. I adored my parents and still adore them. I still live with them.
I went into the forest and I went from place to place to ask for some work. It was dangerous, of course, to go from place to place. No one wanted me. Then at the end of the mountains, I saw a hut. I knocked on the door and a young, beautiful woman opened it, and I said to her “I have lost my parents. I am alone.” I did not tell her that I am Jewish, of course. “Can you give me shelter? I will work for you.” “Yes, come in.” What struck me was the room—her room. It was one room, full of pictures. She took them out of the journals, beautiful boys, beautiful girls, all decorated one room. My work was to go to the village to buy products, to clean the home. I was with her. In the evening, a huge peasant came into this hut. They made a bit of love, and then suddenly, they were on the bed and there were all kinds of things. I come from a very bourgeois family: you kiss, but very carefully, not the way the Ukrainian peasant is kissing her. She was working for the village. The villagers used to come every night—one, two, sometimes three. It...