Aharon Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim (1999) Literature and War Readalong August 2012

In his memoir The Story of a Life acclaimed author Aharon Applefeld tells the story of his childhood and how he came to be a writer. He starts by describing his earliest memories, the beauty he experienced, the love he received from his parents and grandparents. Most prominent in his memories is his last summer holiday as a child of five when he and his parents visited the grand parents in the Carpathians. Little Aharon’s parents are quiet people. They don’t talk a lot and Aharon learns early just to observe, be in the moment and absorb everything around him, the light, the scents, nature. These sensory memories will haunt him all his life. But this idyllic summer is the last peaceful moment of his childhood. Hitler comes to power, war breaks out. At first the family lives in a ghetto, later on they are transported to the camps. Both his parents are killed, his mother right at the beginning of the war. After having lost his father as well, Aharon escapes into the forest where he lives for years until he joins others. Together they first walk from the Ukraine to Italy and from there to Palestine, their new home.

The memoir is a book of a rare beauty. It taps into the deepest recesses of the soul where vague and sensory memories are stored. Because he was a child and a taciturn child at that, he is lacking words for what has happened to him. This makes this memoir so amazing, it’s like watching someone feel around, probe and slowly approach the right words to convey what it was like. Fleeting memories and strong impressions are mixed. Some people, some stories stand out but a lot is just like shadows on the wall.

The loss of his mother tongue leads to further fragmentation. In his family they spoke three different languages, on his long escape to Italy and from there to Palestine, there are more languages spoken and when he finally arrives in Palestine he has to let go of all of them and learn a new one, Hebrew. This is all painful.

I’ve read all sorts of WWII accounts and novels but they never focussed on orphaned children. It’s hard to imagine what it means to lose your parents, your home, your mother tongue. And Palestine wasn’t as welcoming as one would think. Especially not when you felt you wanted to talk about what happened and later to write about it.

Applefeld had to overcome an incredible amount of obstacles before becoming the writer he is today. He had to dig out his memories from where they were buried, find the right words, find the right language. He had to fight hostility too. Every single one of his books is an attempt to capture what happened to him and how it felt.

The Story of a Life is in part exactly that, the story of one man’s life, but more than that it’s a meditation on language and how to put into words, make palpable what is just a fleeting sensory impression. No wonder the cold, the wind, the rain are things which catapult him back to the war years. The war, he writes, is stored in his body, his bones. Because he was so little at the time, lacking the ability to fully comprehend and put into words what happened, the memoir and most of his novels, it seems, are more like a search, a quest almost for what once was, an attempt at conjuring up what was lost.

This is a book I can highly recommend even to those who are tired of reading about WWII and the Holocaust. It is a rich, inspiring and very meditative book about life and how to tell one’s story.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)



The Story of A Life was the eighth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Richard Bausch: Peace. Discussion starts on Friday 28 September, 2012.

41 thoughts on “Aharon Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim (1999) Literature and War Readalong August 2012

  1. What a great review, Caroline. You’ve made me want to rush out and buy the book and start reading this instant. Some of my favorite books are those that deal with something I can’t imagine happening. I’m also fascinated with foreign languages, so this will go to the top of the TBR pile.

    • Thanks, carole, I hope you will like it. I thought it was amazing and I’ve never really read anything like it. He writea about the Holocaust but we can all relate to it because the topics he touches on are so universal. It’s heartfelt and well written.

    • Thanks, Stephanie. It’s a beautiful book. I’m very glad I discovered it. I think he has a way to write which turns his story into a story which can speak to all of us. I hope you will like it.

  2. It is amazing how many lives were destroyed in this period yet how so many brilliantly artistic people were formed as well. It sounds like Applefeld is an example of one of these people.

  3. Great review.

    Enough with the metafiction (or “interior narrative” as Appelfeld calls it). This is the second readalong (the other being O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”) that relies on this technique. I hate it. God created fiction and nonfiction and he did not mean for them to mate. If your memory is faulty,you can do like Ari Folman of “Waltz With Bashir” and fill in the gaps witn the truth. Or you can do like Appelfeld and make stuff up. I enjoy fiction and read a lot of historical fiction because I like the idea of an author filling in the gaps with realistic artistic license. To write a memoir and then leave the reader wondering what is true (even if you are upfront about it) is either lazy or pretentious. Kids fed to German shepards? Blind singing kids sent to cattle cars? Life with Marie? When parts of a book are untrue, but you don’t know what parts – then everything has to be considered false.

    With that off my chest, I actually enjoyed the book. Appelfeld writes very well and he is certainly thought-provoking. The preface is amazing with its discussion of memory vs. imagination and memory vs. oblivion. Several chapters are stong. For example, the ones on his military service.

    The second half of the book when he concentrates on his writing career is tiresome. I got the impression he was trying to justify making things up by criticizing factual writers and their “war through words”.

    I have to admit I side with his Jewish critics who claimed that “when it comes to the Holocaust, one shouldn’t play with poetry or weave stories, but should just set down the facts.” I would take out the word “just”, but I agree with the sentiment.

    You can either take the following Appelfeld justification as brilliant or b*******. “The war was etched inside my body, but not in my memory…. In my writing I wasn’t imagining, but drawing out, from the very depths of my being the feelings and the impressions I had absorbed because of my lack of awareness.” I vote b*******.

    There are some great lines:

    A friend is a person “who knew that a person is no more then a bundle of weaknesses and fears and that there’s no need to add to them. If they know the right word to say, they hold it out to you like a slice of bread during a war. And if they don’t, they sit beside you in silence.”

    “wickedness is like generosity; neither needs words. Evil prefers concealment and darkness, and generosity doesn’t like to trumpet its own deeds.”

    “Words are powerless when confronted by catastrophe; they’re pitiable, wretched, and easily distorted.”

    • Just as a aclarification, I read the German translation of the book that’s why I didn’t include any quotes.
      I loved it and don’t thik he made up anything. The blind children – cattle cars and the feeding to the German dogs is someting I’ve read about before. Seems pretty accurate. I never thought he made up anything. He just couldn’t pin down the timelines.
      I’m also far less confident that memory is ever reliable, funny that you believe it is. I thik we all distort, maybe even more so when we pretend to stick to facts. He knows very well what he remembers and where he drwas blanks.
      I was reminded of Tim O’Brien and that’s why these two books are some of my favourites of the two readalongs.
      I felt that towards the end it a few breaks and unpolished episodes but other than that, I thought it was amazing.

      • I appreciate your viewpoint, but I definitely got the impression that he filled in the gaps in his memory with “war stories” (as O’Brien calls them). This troubled me so much that I have read a lot about him and although still not clear on this subject; where there is smoke, there is usually fire. What did you think he meant by “interior narrative”? I speak personally and not critically when I say that I want to know what is true when I read a memoir. I am not saying the incidents I mentioned were made up. I am saying that given his writing style, we can not be sure.

        • I’m a bit puzzled as I didn’t understand it that way at all and that’s why I mentioned I read it in a German translation. I cannot remember having read a similar expression like “interior narrative” in my book. Who says it’s not an interpretation of the translator. I read the first pages in English and German, just to compare and the two translations are extremely differemt. It’s almost another book. I’m not sure which is closer to the original Hebrew.
          We’ll have to wait until either Judith whose review is due today or Danielle who will review next week give some input. Maybe Leroy who read it as well will add something to the discussion. I really don’t know why that dog story wouldn’t be true? They did many horrible things like that.

  4. I’m still reading (I thought optimistically I would be done by now, but my reading time has been really limited this/last month), but I am very much enjoying the book–despite some of the very painful memories, he still writes about them eloquently. Hopefully I’ll finish this weekend!

    • I’m amazed that he managed to write about a lot of sad things witout being depressing at all. the worst part is almost the hostility he faces in Israel. And the loss of his mother. It’s so hard to imagine what it qould be like to live on your own in a forest for years.

    • Thanks, Mel. It is much more, it’s about finding one’s voice, being an outsider, remembering, overcoming obstacles. And in really beautiful prose. You think you would like it.

  5. Off topic, but have you seen the British film Oranges and Sunshine about a British social worker who discovers that the government deported children from England to Australia beginning in the 19th C to 1970? (also Canada & Rhodesia and NZ). Your review made me think of the film because the children grow up w/o an identity and are really lost.

  6. Funnily enough I couldn’t read this as a work of fiction, but as a memoir I might manage it. I have heard so many people enthuse about Appelfeld’s writing and I’d like to try it for myself. Subject-wise, though, it reminds me a lot of J M G Le Clezio’s Etoile errante, which is also about Holocaust orphans trying to make a new home in Palestine after much vagabondage. Another beautifully written book, but my goodness was that one sad and hard to read in some ways.

    • i think you would really like this because it contains a lot of elements which you are interested in as well. It’s a lot about writing and finding your voice, trauma and how to voice that, from being mute, to put it into words.
      It’s sad in parts but withouth being depressing. I will read more of him, I’m sure.

  7. Wow! This one sounds amazing. I haven’t read too many accounts of those who moved to Palestine. And now that you mention it, I haven’t read too many accounts of orphans during the war. It seems like there would have been a lot of them. Will keep an eye out for this one.

    • It’s worth reading, it’s so different an eye-opener. There must have been a lot of orphans indeed. Amos Oz has written an extremely great memoir (A Tale of Love and Darkness) about Palestine. I’m stuck in the middle because it’s a chunkster but it has a lot of amazing elements, things I never thought about, about Hebrew.

  8. Beautiful review.

    I have Etoile Errante at home, it sounds a great book but it’s been on the shelf for a couple of years and every time I see it, I think “not this time”. All because of the theme. So, despite your last paragraph, this one would have the same fate, I’m afraid.

  9. Well I would probably never have come across this book had it not been for the read-along and I definitely would not have considered taking a memoir by a holocaust survivor on my week’s summer holiday to read… but I’m glad I did.

    As Caroline says in the initial review it is a book of rare beauty. I did read it as something which was entirely true, I didn’t think he did make up the details of kids being put in with unfed guard dogs. Why would he?

    I hadn’t previously thought about the post-war problems of all these displaced people, many of them children, who have nowhere to go. This gave me considerable pause for thought.

    • I’m so glad you liked it too and also about what you write about making things up. I didn’t read it like that at all. And there is nothing of that in Judith’s review either.
      I really wonder where Kevin got that from. I had a feeling that he had long stretches of memory that were blurred but that those stronger memories and impressions were most certainly true.
      I don’t think that when it comes to the Holocaust any atrocity has to be made up.
      I have a non-fiction book on dispplaced people, I should read it. It’s a topic that hasn’t been researched all that well.
      Since I read this book I’m aware that this was far more tragic than I imagined.

  10. Sounds like this really made an impression, Caroline. You’ll have to read Badenheim 1939 now!

    I enjoyed this but not unreservedly. Although I disagree strongly with what warmoviebuff has to say about the relationship between fiction and non-fiction, I must admit I had the same problem with the second half of the book and the detailed stuff about the literary scene in 50s and 60s Israel. I thought it unbalanced the book and left me feeling disengaged. A pity, as what comes before is definitely worth reading.

    When a mass event like the migration to Palestine takes place you can often lose sight of the myriad of individual experiences that make it up. The points you raise about the loss of language and how unwelcoming the new land seemed to a child are spot on.

    • Yes, it made an impression and I will read Badenheim as soon as I get a chance.
      I don’t disagree about the last part and that the book felt unbalanced, it’s true but I didn’t mind. I would have minded if it had been a novel but not for a memoir because I think it mirrors the way Appelfeld views it and how unbalanced his memory is. There is this huge terrain of his childhood which forms the core theme of all of his books and it is blurred and consists mostly of sensory memories and then there is the awakening of his cosciousness as a writer and more than that as an Israeli writer who writes in Hebrew.
      That’s how I saw it. In a novel I would like balance.

      • Of course, the fault is at least partly my own: if I knew more about the (very specific) literary “scene” he’s describing then I would react differently.

        For comparison, I remember Nabokov’s recreation of the émigre scene in Speak, Memory. Like with Applefeld, the author is the only “name” to emerge from the coterie being described. But unlike Applefeld’s earnestness, Nabokov uses wit and as a result kept me in tune.

        • At the beginning of that part he mentions quite a lot of famous writers but there are a many lesser known ones towards the end of the book as well.
          I haven’t read the Nabokov you mention. Applefeld isn’t very witty, that’s for sure.

  11. Caroline,
    Not sure where to post this, but I’m definitely IN THE LOOP for September’s Literature and War Readalong.

    Do please tell me. Your German LIterature Month is a wonderful event. I’d love to participate this November. I can reschedule my Bernhard Schlink event, so we’re not doubling up.

    Do tell me your thoughts. Any plans on the board for this November?

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • that’s weird!! my comment was cut off.

      well I was basically saying that the fact that it’s true story makes it even sadder. must be painful for him to write it

      • That happens sometimes, I don’t know why.
        It is very painful. His parenty were such kind and loving people, he missed them a lot and until the end of the war he was hoping to see them again. i think he didn’t see his mother dying, he just knew it from his father.
        It’s so hard to imagine what it must have been like.

    • It really is. It seems others like his novels better but I loved it. I find it amazing that he survived all alone for so many years as a child. I was always wondering what happened to those children we sometimes see in a WWII movie who run off. The movies never tell.

  12. Nice review, Caroline! This one looks like a fascinating book. I can’t even imagine how one can let go off one’s culture and language and start life anew. I remember reading your review of a book on a similar theme, by a woman author. I can’t remember her name now. Thanks for writing about this book.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I’m not sure which you book you mean right now. Hmm. Will have to dig in the archives.
      I thought it was an amazing book and an amazing story. I wonder how many children survived like that.
      Losing your language must be painful and confusing.

      • I would have sworn that I read the review in your blog. But now when I search for it, I am not able to find it here. I remember the theme being remarkably similar, but it was a woman’s point of view rather than a man’s. And the woman finally ends up in a European country rather than in Israel. It was also about losing one’s language and trying to learn a new one and express her feelings and thoughts in that. I can’t believe that I forgot the title. I also can’t believe that I am not able to find it in your archives 🙂 If I remember the title, I will let you know.

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