Story of a Diaspora

Story of a Diaspora

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life

The Story of a Life
by Aharon Appelfeld, trans. Aloma Halter
Schocken, 2004, 208 pp., $23.00

If the injunction against representing God began with Moses’ receipt of the Ten Commandments, the one against representing evil had to await Hitler’s monstrosity. Of those who favor the latter, Elie Wiesel and Theodor Adorno stand among the most scrupulous and authoritative: theirs, respectively, “The truth of Auschwitz remains hidden in the ashes. Only those who lived it in their flesh and their minds can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. . . . No one who has not experienced the event will ever be able to understand it”; and “After the Holocaust to write a poem is barbaric. . . . Through aesthetic principles or stylization. . . [Auschwitz] is transfigured and stripped of some of its horrors. . .”

Their dicta elevate testimony over poetry, silence over eloquence. They doubt the capacity of everyday language to capture the enormity and warn that attempts to do so risk trivializing, distorting, or even falsifying it. Otherwise, the howl from oblivion of Anne Frank’s diary becomes in the hands of Lillian Hellman a tawdry, sentimental play celebrating platitudes about the resilient human spirit and the brotherhood of man. Or the story of Oskar Schindler, a mercenary outlaw of obscure motives, becomes, through the lens of Steven Spielberg, a caricature adapted to the commercial formula of Hollywood and a narrative anathema, besides, to the Final Solution’s significance, which was not one cynical German’s rescue of some fifteen hundred Jews but rather his compatriots’ murder of six million of them.

But how, then, does one fathom the satanic magnitude behind the mind-boggling abstraction? How to envision, in the heart of modern Western civilization, a state-run military-industrial machine designed to gas and burn an entire people and efface every trace of them from human history? How do we who were not there conceive of hatred so virulent as to be suicidal: that with the Third Reich in peril, the Nazis refused to divert critical logistical support and manpower to defend themselves because it meant suspending the exterminations? Or a bloodlust so medieval as to incite Polish peasants, unsolicited, to massacre thousands of the Jewish neighbors beside whom they’d lived for centuries? That is, can one ever imagine a crime so immense, so diabolical, so obscene that it rouses less outrage than numb disbelief? For in the Holocaust, we confront the outer limits of empathy, imagination, and comprehension and a depravity that defies words—a primordial evil Primo Levi has called “the demolition of man.”


Yet over the last forty years, Israeli novelist, Aharon Appelfeld, one of the world’s foremost writer-survivors, has braved the Gorgon. He has mined his death-strewn past to c...