Prize winning Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld has written more than 20 novels about the Holocaust, usually focusing on what happened just before and just after the mass murder of European Jewry.
Born in 1932 in Czernowitz, now in the Ukraine, Appelfeld is himself a Holocaust survivor, having been in a concentration camp from which he escaped to hide in the forests before being picked up by the Russians. He worked in Soviet army kitchens until the war ended and, in 1946, at the age of 14, he settled in Palestine. He served in the Israeli army during the War of Independence and then studied at Hebrew University.
Appelfeld’s books are simply written allegories that generally deal obliquely with the Holocaust, emphasizing the initial reluctance of Jews to confront growing anti-Semitism. Later, his characters are survivors who struggle to find meaning in the world. Several of his stories deal with the mother-son relationship, a theme that is understandable, given the fact that Appelfeld’s mother was killed by the Nazis when he was eight years old.
Appelfeld returns to that subject in his newest novel “Blooms of Darkness,” which departs from his previous work by more directly confronting the Holocaust experiences of Hugo, the 11-year old protagonist. His father has been carried off to a “labor camp” and his mother is trying to arrange for a peasant to take Hugo from the ghetto to the mountains. When this fails and the house-to-house searches become more intense, Hugo’s mother brings him to a brothel where Mariana, one of the prostitutes, has agreed to hide Hugo. During the day, he is free to use her room but at night, he must remain silently in a closet where he listens without understanding the noises made by Mariana and the Nazi soldiers who enter and leave. The relationship between Mariana and Hugo blossoms as he tries to comfort her and begins to stop asking when his mother will return.
Some other women in the brothel play minor roles as the fortunes of war change and the Russians drive out the Nazis. Hugo, Mariana, and the women flee but the Russians eventually capture most of them, including Mariana — with dire consequences. Hugo wanders through the city, hoping in vain to find his parents. The powerful story ends ambiguously as one of the refugees says, “we have to leave together and watch over one another.”
Presumably, Appelfeld is trying to suggest that it may be possible to start again by forging bonds, despite the horror of the Holocaust. Tenuous hopefulness reflects the will to survive and the determination to endure. This latest book by Appelfeld buttresses his well-deserved reputation as a world-class writer.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)