Badenheim 1939

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Badenheim 1939

by Aharon Appelfeld


A novel set in Austria in 1939; published in Hebrew (as Badenheim ‘ir nofesh) in 1975; in English in 1980.


On the eve of the Holocaust, a group of Jews in an Austrian resort town goes blindly on with life as some mysterious authorities prepare to deport the group to Poland.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Aharon Appelfeld (also spelled Aron Appelfeld) was born in 1932 in Czernowitz, the capital of Bukovina, a largely German-speaking region of central Europe that was under Romanian rule. His hometown was a commercial and intellectual center, including highly assimilated Jews, who spoke German and identified with German culture. In 1941, two years after the outbreak of World War II, Bukovina was caught up in Germany’s invasion of Russia and the Bukovinan Jews were rounded up for deportation. Like many others, Appelfeld’s mother was shot on the spot; the boy and his father were separated and imprisoned in the concentration and labor camps. Appelfeld escaped, lived on farms and in villages of the Ukraine for a few years, then joined the Russian army as a kitchen boy and made his way to Italy. From there, at age 14, he boarded a ship of Jewish refugees bound for Palestine. Appelfeld settled in Palestine in 1946 and reunited with his father there after the state of Israel was established. From 1950–52 Appelfeld served in the Israeli army, and he served repeatedly in the Arab-Israeli wars. At the Hebrew University Appelfeld studied under a number of Jewish intellectuals who, like him, had escaped from central Europe and whose works became highly influential on his own works. While Appelfeld’s fiction and nonfiction addresses various topics, he has become best known for his writings that concern the Holocaust, the systematic attempt to exterminate European Jewry during World War II. Among his translated novels are The Immortal Bartfuss (1988), For Every Sin (1989), and The Iron Tracks (1998). His first novel to be translated into English (and the second one he wrote), Badenheim 1939 established him as one of Israel’s foremost literary voices. Crafted in his distinctive style, the novel addresses the Holocaust indirectly. The story ends before the genocide begins, grappling in an innovative, almost surrealistic way with the inability of a largely assimilated group of Jews to grasp the calamity about to befall them.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Liberalism, anti-Semitism, and Hitler’s rise to power

Austria’s history makes it an especially apt setting for an allegorical novel in the ominous days before the Holocaust. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Austrian Jews had assimilated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s dominant Christian culture to a higher degree than in many other parts of Europe. Along with Austria and Hungary, the empire, which lasted from 1867–1918, encompassed ten other lands, including Appelfeld’s birthplace, Bukovina. The empire’s assimilated Jews contributed significantly to the cultural flowering in Vienna, Austria, a major center of European art, literature, music, and science at the turn of the twentieth century. Appelfeld’s hometown of Czernowitz was culturally tied to Vienna, as were other areas that had formerly been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Popular cafés in Czernowitz named themselves after Viennese cafes, and Jews, like other residents, conversed and took university courses in German. From throughout the empire, Jews migrated to Austria, the empire’s German core, with an eye toward Vienna as a locus of Jewish modernization and intellectual creativity, evidenced by, for example, the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). The characters in Badenheim 1939 form a representative array of assimilated Austro-Hungarian Jews, from musicians to doctors, businessmen, historians, and working-class waiters and prostitutes.

The success of Austria’s Jewish community in the nineteenth century was enhanced by the liberal tradition, which played an influential part in the political life of the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Jews identified with the largely German-speaking liberal leadership and its championship of individual freedom. Under the liberal ascendancy of the 1860s, Austria’s Jews had been awarded equal rights with Christians (1867) and Jewish communities had received official recognition by the state. By the early twentieth century, however, Austrian liberalism—like liberalism elsewhere in Europe—was in decline. Along with this decline came growing anti-Semitism, the intensifying nature of which some of the assimilated failed to glean. In Austria, the long tenure of a right-wing demagogue, Karl Lueger, as mayor of Vienna, showed how deep-seated anti-Semitism was in the land. From 1897 until his death in 1910, Lueger won repeated elections on a strongly anti-Semitic and nationalistic platform that exploited lower-middle-class anxieties and hostility to both the Jews and the socialists.

In 1907 an aimless young Austrian named Adolf Hitler drifted into Lueger’s Vienna and became involved in right-wing politics. It was in Vienna that Hitler conceived the fearful and obsessive hatred of Jews that would remain for him a driving force of his ideological worldview. Moving to Germany in 1913, Hitler served in the German army during the First World War. When Germany and its ally Austria met with defeat in 1918, Hitler blamed it on an international Jewish conspiracy (and on the socialists and communists), accusing German and Austrian Jews of betraying their countries to the enemy. In 1921 Hitler became the leader of a small right-wing party called the National Socialist German Workers party, later known as the Nazis. By the early 1930s, Hitler had built a fringe group of malcontents into a major political force. In January 1933—amid the economic turmoil of the Great Depression—he was appointed chancellor of a new coalition government in Germany, despite the fact that his Nazi party had won substantially less (33 percent) than a majority of the votes cast. Soon after, the German parliament granted him dictatorial power.

Anschluss—from Germany into Austria

For decades the right wing in Austria and Germany had called for the unification of the two nations. Yet such a unification, or Anschluss, was expressly forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles, which had ended World War I. Furthermore, Austria’s two authoritarian leaders of the 1930s, Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt von Schuschnigg, were both conservative in their political orientation. Austrian Jews reassured themselves that while neither Dollfuss nor Schuschnigg could be considered friendly to Jews, at least both leaders vowed to keep Austria independent from Germany. In


Austrian culture was centered in Vienna, where 170,000 of Austria’s 185,000 Jews lived in 1938. They formed less than 3 percent of the country’s population at the time, yet occupied a conspicuous place in Austrian society. Jews comprised more than half the country’s doctors and lawyers, and three-quarters of Vienna’s banks, newspapers, and textile companies were owned by the city’s Jews (Bukey, p. 131). Not everything about their successful assimilation into Austrian lifeways was positive, however. It exacerbated the anti-Semitism of the larger populace.

Austria’s often poverty-ridden Christian public imagined the Austrian Jews to be a unified, powerful force, an image that was unfounded but nevertheless promoted by anti-Semitic propaganda. In truth, a number of social and religious divisions fragmented the Austrian Jews, most importantly the divide between the culturally assimilated central European Jews and the Ostjuden, the mostly less well-educated, still Orthodox eastern European Jews, The Ostjuden (represented in Badenheim 1939 by Dr. Pappenheim and others) retained cultural ties to Poland, whereas the assimilated Jews looked to Austria’s German-oriented Christian society for their cultural norms. Mirroring a real-life attitude, the central European Jews of Appelfeld’s novel express resentment against the Ostjuden, blaming them for the troubles inflicted on all the Jews.

March 1938, however, this hope was shattered when Hitler’s army marched into Austria, Schuschnigg resigned, and the formal Anschluss (annexation) of Austria to Germany was announced, resulting in the creation of a so-called Greater Germany.

The success of the Anschluss emboldened Hitler to pursue more open persecution of the Jews within Greater Germany. In retrospect, a series of grim signposts marks the road from the Anschluss in 1938 to the mass murder of Jews that began three years later, in 1941. But these signposts were not so visible to many at the time. The attempt to solve the so-called Jewish question in Austria evolved through three stages, the first being emigration (1938–39). From August 1938, when Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann opened the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna, officials employed discrimination, confiscation, torture, imprisonment, and other measures to encourage Jews to leave Greater Germany. Next came the stage of deportation (1939–40), during which Jews were arrested and forcibly removed to parts of Poland and other areas under German control. While many were shot, starved, or beaten to death, there was no systematic attempt as yet to exterminate them. Austrian Jews began to be deported to Poland on October 18, 1939, on a train bound for the newly established ghetto in the Lublin area of eastern Poland. At the end of Badenheim 1939 the town’s Jews are about to be deported this way. Their fictional experience can be seen as representing the actual deportations of October 1939 and after. The final stage, genocide (1941–45), is one the novel only alludes to; like a specter, it lurks behind the action. In this stage the Nazis and their accomplices attempted to murder all the Jews in German-controlled lands through starvation, mobile extermination squads (Einsatzgruppen), and deportation to the six extermination camps in Poland.

Austria and the Holocaust

In various European countries, non-Jews risked their lives to help Jewish neighbors and strangers escape the storm of hatred, by concealing them or assisting their flight. Those brave few, however, were a minority. The vast majority simply stood by, while another minority joined in the genocide. From France to Russia, from Sweden to Croatia, Germany’s Nazi conquerors encountered inhabitants who voluntarily—in some cases eagerly—helped the Germans murder or otherwise persecute Jews. In some places, such as the Baltic states and the Ukraine, on occasion the Nazis found significant numbers of local people whose anti-Semitic brutality surprised even them. The Nazis utilized such anti-Semites effectively, organizing


On March 20, 1933, Germany’s first concentration camp opened at Dachau. The camps, guarded compounds, “concentrated” and imprisoned undesirables, mostly so the Nazis could exploit their labor and, in the end, kill them in efficiently as possible. The earliest inmates were political enemies (communists, socialists, labor union leaders) of the Nazis. Other undesirables soon followed—hardened criminals, the homeless, prostitutes, Gypsies, and homosexuals. At the same time, the German government began to implement anti-Semitic policies aimed at “cleansing” Germany of its Jewish population by encouraging Jews to emigrate. By the end of 1933, a series of laws banned Jews in Germany from accepting jobs in civil service, law, the arts, and the media. Books written by Jews and other undesirables were publicly burned. In 1934 the S.S. (Schutxstaffel), originally Hitler’s personal bodyguard, now an elite military police force, was put in charge of the concentration camps. Over the next decade, Austrians would form a substantial minority of the officers in the S.S. and the system would grow into a vast network, stretching from France in the west to the Ukraine in the east and including three kinds of camps:

  • Concentration camps , such as Dachau (est. 1933) and Buchenwald (est. 1937) in Germany, where “undesirable” were imprisoned; forced labor became a key feature of their internment “Particularly notorious was the quarry at Mauthausen (est. 1938) in Austria, where thousands met their death (Yahil, p. 133). Exterminations occurred Here too.
  • Labor camps , where millions of able-bodied Jews, Slavs, and other, “undesirables” were used as expendable slave labor, essentially worked to death. Many labor camps were located in the Ukraine, such as the one that Aharon Appelfeld and his father were sent to in 1941.
  • Extermination camps , where industrial mass-killing techniques were adopted to exterminate mainly Jaws but also others. Six extermination camps were built starting in late 1941, all in Poland: Chelmno, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka. About half of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust perished in these six camps from 1941–44, many of them in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms.

In addition, hundreds of transit camps were established to aid in the transport of the millions imprisoned from 1933 to 1945. The extermination camps have been called “death camps,” but scholars caution that this term is misleading. Conditions in all the camps were brutal. While the extermination camps set out to achieve the systematic killing of the Jews, those in concentration and labor camps died from beatings, shootings, starvation, and neglect. In truth, all the camps were “death camps.”

them into paramilitary battalions and calling them Hiwis (short for Hilfswillige or “willing helpers”).

Eventually they came to number in the hundreds of thousands…. The Germans found that they could usually rely on the Hiwis to perform the least pleasant tasks, such as flushing Jews out of ghetto hiding places and shooting on the spot those too frail to walk to deportation vehicles. Other volunteers became guards at camps and ghettos all over Eastern Europe. More than three-quarters of the guards at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibór [three of the six extermination camps] were Hiwis.

(Niewyk and Nicosia, pp. 86–87)

Prior to 1939, Germany’s Nazis had found similarly enthusiastic assistance in Austria. It is thus possible that the characters in Badenheim 1939 are headed into the hands of the Hiwis and their S.S. teachers at the end of the novel.

Austria’s Nazi Party, in existence long before the Anschluss of 1938, had already done significant damage. It was responsible for the assassination of Prime Minister Dollfuss in 1934 during an attempted coup. The coup failed, but as his successor, Prime Minister Schuschnigg, discovered after four years of political turbulence in Austria, its Nazi Party enjoyed broad public support. The single most important factor in marshaling this support was anti-Semitism. Long a major theme in Austrian politics, anti-Semitism unified public support for the Nazis in Austria much more than in Germany, where other factors (such as the economy) were more important. As historian Evan Burr Bukey explains, “The collective phobia may not have envisaged mass murder, but subsequent events suggest that thousands of Austrians, especially in Vienna, yearned to strip the Jews of their rights and property, to segregate them from society, to eliminate them from their midst. In 1938 the spontaneous anti-Semitic riots accompanying the Anschluss were so violent that they shocked even the Germans” (Bukey, p. 131).

On March 12, 1938, the day after Schuschnigg’s radio broadcast announcing the annexation of Austria to Germany, Austrian mobs manhandled Jews at will, looting Jewish stores and domiciles while the police looked the other way. Vienna passed a succession of anti-Semitic laws that year. Jews were forbidden to enter parks, attend the opera or theater, or sit on benches marked for Aryans. The authorities made Jewish students drop out of the schools and Jewish entrepreneurs turn their businesses over to Aryans. Jewish residents had to move out of the suburbs and concentrate in Jewish districts. “The optimists,” reports one eyewitness historian, “thought it would get better” (Schneider, p. 39). Bringing to mind an attitude in Badenheim 1939, the historian’s father was such an optimist:

[My father] obtained a position where his job consisted of building and repairing bridges. He showed great aptitude and was soon assisting one of the architects; in a curious way, he seemed happy, especially when he received a coveted stamp on his identity card, which made him a Wirtschafts-Wichtiger Jude (a Jew important to the economy), and therefore thought to be a valuable commodity. His older brother Nachman, being head bookkeeper of a clothing firm, which now started to produce uniforms, received the same classification. Both brothers thus felt safe; both preferred the known to the unknown; both had served in the imperial forces of the Great War and therefore felt less vulnerable; and both were to pay a terrible price for their optimism and their never-ending affection for Austria.

(Schneider, p. 23)

A major signpost of impending doom was the wave of anti-Jewish riots on Kristallnacht (means “Night of the Broken Glass”), an episode of anti-Semitic violence that reverberated through Jewish communities of Germany and Austria on November 9–10,1938. Of all municipalities, only in Vienna did the Nazi Storm Troopers (Sturmabteilung), who perpetrated the violence, find a large share of the public willing to join them. Almost everywhere else in Greater Germany, the public stood by while the uniformed Storm Troopers wrecked Jewish synagogues, businesses, and homes, and killed 91 people. Some 4,600 Viennese Jews were sent to Dachau at this time (Gutman, vol. 2, p. 838). Close to 8,000 Austrian Jews would be sent to Dachau and Buchenwald between April 1938 and September 1939; of this total, nearly 5,000 were released during the spring and summer of 1939 if they had a visa or a permit to emigrate (Schneider, p. 40). Most of these ex-inmates went into voluntary exile. Roughly a third of Austria’s Jews was sucked into the Nazi death mill.

Some non-Jewish Austrians protested all the anti-Jewish violence—finding fault not with the victimization, but with the random destruction of valuable property. The Jewish property, they reasoned, should be put to good use: it should enrich the Aryan Germans and Austrians, the non-Jewish Caucasian members of the selfappointed “master race.” Random violence was considered a mistake, one that those in control were careful not to repeat. Kristallnacht taught them that bureaucratic, legal measures would be more effective and more popular than random violence. It is this quiet, nonviolent but remorseless bureaucratic approach that Badenheim 1939 reflects. In the novel such an approach is represented allegorically by the Sanitation Department, whose powers are mysteriously expanded to include authority over the Jews.

The imaginary Sanitation Department’s reallife counterpart was Adolf Eichmann’s Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna, where assembly-line efficiency reduced the number of Jews in Austria from 185,000 in 1938 to fewer than 82,000 by May 1939. Subsequently a similar office was set up under Reinhard Heydrich in Berlin, Germany. Eichmann was promoted and later put in charge of implementing the Final Solution, the attempt to wipe out European Jewry by mass extermination. Their experience in Austria thus offered the Germans key lessons that sealed the fate of millions.

The Novel in Focus

Plot overview

As the novel opens, Badenheim, a small resort town in Austria, is preparing for the upcoming spring cultural festival. At the same time, inspectors from the Sanitation Department are making a different set of preparations, suggested by posters hanging in their office that rave about how fresh the air is in Poland and how labor is the crux of life, messages ominous to the reader more than to the vacationers or resort dwellers. Two realities co-exist—the first is life through the lens of the resident and vacationing Jews, the second is life as viewed by the Sanitation officials. Privy to all these goings on, the reader merges the two, a jarring experience that creates an altogether fantastic effect. The fictional world appears as double-edged; its inhabitants proceed unhurriedly along parallel but disjunctive tracks of expectation. Self-delusion sets in, along with tension and an eerie sense of foreboding.

Plot summary

The novel opens in spring, as sun and warmth return to the small, attractive Austrian resort town of Badenheim after a particularly stormy winter: “It was a moment of transition. The town was about to be invaded by vacationers” (Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939, p. 1). The town’s pharmacist, Martin, has resigned himself to the illness of his wife, Trude, who is beset by disturbing hallucinations that make the world seem “poisoned and diseased” (Badenheim 1939, p. 3). They watch as the first guests of the season arrive and the town’s hotel becomes a beehive of activity.

First to appear is Dr. Pappenheim, the impresario in charge of arranging the town’s famous annual music festival, which brings many visitors back each spring. Other guests include the historian Dr. Fussholdt; his pretty young wife; an escaped mental patient named Frau Zauberblit; and the youthful, handsome mathematician Dr. Shutz. The town’s two prostitutes, Sally and Gertie, don summer dresses and parade down the avenue. Dr. Pappenheim’s musicians arrive and energize the audience with their evening’s performance. Pappenheim has also secured the services of a yanuka, or child prodigy, and of twin brothers who recite poetry aloud in beautiful voices. Later, after two days of eating nothing, the twins will perform a reading about death. Their passion is the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (“Who, if I cried, would hear me…/… Not angels, not men,” Rilke, p. 79).

The morning after the musicians perform, Martin is visited by an inspector from the Sanitation Department:

He wanted to know all kinds of peculiar details. The ownership of the business, if Martin had inherited it, when and from whom he had acquired it, and how much it was worth. Martin, surprised, explained that everything had been whitewashed and thoroughly disinfected. The inspector took out a yardstick and measured. He left abruptly without apologizing or explaining.

Martin was upset by the visit. He believed in the authorities and blamed himself as a matter of course. Perhaps the back entrance had been neglected. He stood on the lawn. A morning like any other.

(Badenheim 1939, pp. 8–9)

The following day an announcement informs the town “that the jurisdiction of the Sanitation Department [has] been extended, and that it [has] been authorized to conduct independent investigations” (Badenheim 1939, p. 11). As the inspectors spread out and begin their investigations, the townspeople gossip speculatively about the inspectors’ intentions. Soon the inspectors are busy all over town: “They took measurements, put up fences, and planted flags. Porters unloaded rolls of barbed wire, cement pillars, and all kinds of appliances suggestive of preparations for a public celebration” (Badenheim 1939, p. 15). The mostly Jewish population figures that the activity is in aid of the upcoming music festival.

Preoccupied with their own lives, the people barely notice when, in mid-May, the Sanitation Department announces that all Jews are required to register with the department by the end of the month. Rumors spread, and Samitzky, a Jewish musician who is proud of his Polish heritage, declares happily that they will be going to Poland soon. His statement seems confirmed when posters go up in the Sanitation Department office, with slogans proclaiming the pleasures of Poland: “LABOR IS OUR LIFE… THE AIR IN POLAND IS FRESHER… SAIL ON THE VISTULA…. GET TO KNOW SLAVIC CULTURE” (Badenheim 1939, pp. 29–30). Soon the townspeople and visitors find themselves barricaded inside town, cut off from the outside world: “Life was now confined to the hotel, the pastry shop and the swimming pool” (Badenheim 1939, p. 39). Yet despite the confinement, a relaxed atmosphere prevails as the festival continues. Only a visitor named Dr. Langmann objects: “I still consider myself a free Austrian citizen. Let them send the Polish Jews to Poland; they deserve their country” (Badenheim 1939, p. 45). But Dr. Pappenheim says, “There are wonderful places in Poland” (Badenheim 1939, p. 49).

The characters interact, sometimes happily, sometimes not. Pappenheim is overjoyed when the famous musician Mandelbaum arrives after escaping the authorities in another quarantined resort town. Pappenheim has been trying for years to entice the great Mandelbaum to the festival, so the maestro’s arrival is a wonderful victory for him. Despite this coup, another guest, Princess Milbaum, an aristocrat of high culture, looks down on Pappenheim. She calls him “an international criminal” and complains about the Ostjuden, who, she says, have “taken over Badenheim and [are] dragging every bit of true culture through the mud” (Badenheim 1939, p. 80). When food supplies are cut off, the hotel owner opens his food stores to everyone, and the people enjoy fine delicacies. The musicians practice, filling the hotel with music. Dr. Fussholdt, the historian, works singlemindedly on the proofs of his new book while his young wife, Mitzi, grows bored.

Mitzi is frightened by the prospect of their impending journey. Dr. Pappenheim tells her that there is nothing to fear: “There are many Jews living in Poland. In the last analysis, a man has to return to his roots” (Badenheim 1939, p. 89). Others have begun complaining about their enforced isolation, and outside the hotel, frustrated people now prowl “the streets and cast their angry shadows” (Badenheim 1939, p. 92). Only the formerly pessimistic Trude seems happy. She was born in a small town in Poland and is eager to return. She praises Poland’s beauty, declaring that the Yiddish language (spoken by many Polish Jews) is beautiful and easy to learn. Meanwhile, her husband, Martin, has “absorbed her sickness,” feeling an inexplicable desolation that grips him “like a vise” (Badenheim 1939, pp. 95, 96). More people arrive, and the town is now full of strangers who have been uprooted from their homes. Dr. Pappenheim continues to assure everybody that things will be better in Poland:

He would tell them about Poland. About the wonderful world to which they were going. “Here we have no life left,” he would say. “Here everything has become empty.” Only a few days before, they had been sitting in their warm houses, busy with their flourishing practices. Now they were sitting here, without shelter. Everything had been taken from them; it was like a bad dream.

(Badenheim 1939, p. 97)

A stranger loses his temper, telling everyone that there has been a mistake. He was brought to Badenheim because he is a Jew, he says, but he is an Austrian, not one of the Ostjuden. And anyway what does it matter who his ancestors were? The man apologizes for his outburst.

“Gray days settled on the town. In the hotel they stopped serving meals. Everyone stood in line to get their lunch—barley soup and dry bread,” daily fare foreshadowing the crumbs doled out to death-camp inmates (Badenheim 1939, p. 100). An old rabbi appears, confused and disoriented from long isolation in an empty synagogue, which was once filled with old men, all of whom are now dead. New arrivals are brought to Badenheim daily because their ancestors had once come from the town. Martin’s pharmacy is looted, and all his drugs are stolen. “The last days of Badenheim were illuminated by a dull, yellow light. There were no more cigarettes. People fed in secret on the stolen drugs. Some were gay and others sunk in depression” (Badenheim 1939, p. 106). More newcomers flood into Badenheim, frail people who die silently. The pastry cook buries them calmly in the town’s formal gardens.

On the last day the people assemble in a group and walk to the train station, escorted by policemen. They await the train, enjoying refreshments and chatting about the new life ahead. Finally the train appears—” four filthy freight cars” that pull up to the station as the novel concludes:

“Get in,” yelled invisible voices. And the people were sucked in. Even those who were standing with a bottle of lemonade in their hands, a bar of chocolate, the headwaiter with his dog—they were all sucked in as easily as grains of wheat poured into a funnel. Nevertheless Dr. Pappenheim found time to make the following remark: “If the coaches are so dirty it must mean that we have not far to go.”

(Badenheim 1939, pp. 147–48)

Rendering the inconceivable

About halfway through Badenheim 1939, one of the musicians asks a friend why they are being sent to Poland:

The friend sought an impressive formula. “Historical necessity,” he said.

“Kill me, I don’t understand it. Ordinary common sense can’t comprehend it.”

“In that case, kill your ordinary common sense and maybe you’ll begin to understand.”

(Badenheim 1939, p. 70)

Rich in meanings that are hidden from the characters but accessible to the reader, this passage exemplifies Appelfeld’s essentially ironic literary technique. The words “historical necessity,” for instance, echo Nazi propaganda, while the joking expression “kill me” foreshadows the speaker’s probable fate. But this brief exchange also suggests something more profound about the Holocaust: its fundamental incomprehensibility.

While Badenheim 1939 is an allegorical fable rather than a realistic reconstruction, many real-life Austrian Jews in the 1930s shared the inability of the novel’s characters to comprehend what was coming. In 1937, when the Austrian expatriate writer Stefan Zweig, living in London, warned Jewish friends in Vienna of approaching disaster, he was met with skeptical mockery. Even after the violence of Kristallnacht, many Austrian Jews believed that the persecution had reached its peak and would soon subside.

Attempting to account for such beliefs, historians have pointed out that while genocide has been all too common in human history, the Holocaust was unprecedented and remains unique. In the first place, its uniqueness is quantitative, since no other genocide has come close in sheer scale. But the Holocaust is also qualitatively unique. At no other time have the full available resources of an advanced bureaucratic and industrial state been dedicated to genocide. Nor has any other genocidal campaign exhibited such gruesome determination to wring every ounce of financial gain from its victims, from legally expropriating their homes and bank accounts to recovering the gold fillings in their teeth, even their hair and skin, for economic benefit. None has built entire industrial infrastructures devoted to death. The Holocaust stands alone as the darkest edifice of the industrial age, from the gas chambers and crematoria—death factories essentially—to the rail networks that delivered the raw material, living human beings. In this mass production of death, profound human suffering became no more than a byproduct. “Ordinary common sense” must be killed in order to envision it, for how could any sensible person have seen the Holocaust coming? Such a horror-ridden system of death requires an incredible flight of the imagination, in sync with the macabre atmosphere of Appelfeld’s story. His techniques—metaphorical language, the omission of causeand-effect, juxtaposition, and the evocation of relatively “flat” characters—lend a “mythic, timeless quality” to the Holocaust that begins to do justice to the horror of it (Ramras-Rauch, p. 494).

Sources and literary context

Like much of Appelfeld’s other fiction, the world of Badenheim 1939 is based in large part on the author’s own childhood memories as a young boy in Czernowitz, Bukovina. Before 1918, Bukovina was, as noted, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and even after the land changed hands (it was ceded to Romania) Czernowitz remained under the spell of Viennese high culture. Appelfeld’s family was middle class—his father owned property and sold flour-milling machinery—and, like other middle-class Jewish families of Czernowitz, was assimilated into the Austrian cultural milieu. Appelfeld grew up speaking German as his first language. The fate of Czernowitz likely provided a partial model for Badenheim, since parts of the city were briefly turned into a Jewish ghetto after the German advance into Romania of July 1941. Before being deported to a labor camp in the Ukraine, Appelfeld and his father were held there with other Jews from the area.

Czernowitz in the 1930s was the home of other Jewish authors, who emerged as such in the postwar era, including novelist Paul Celan (1920–70) and poet Dan Pagis (1930–86). As with their works, the literary influences that helped inspire Badenheim 1939 largely came from the interwar German-speaking culture of central Europe. Those influences gave rise to a number of novels that, like Badenheim 1939, take place in spa or resort towns, most notably Thomas Mann’s earlier masterpiece The Magic Mountain (1924). The writer whose work played the most important role in shaping Appelfeld’s own was Franz Kafka (1883–1924), who like Appelfeld came from an assimilated middle-class Austrian Jewish family. Kafka’s fiction is allegorical, and often evokes human impotence in the face of dark, vaguely defined forces. In Kafka’s The Trial (1925), for example, a man is prosecuted for an unspecified crime by an arbitrary, mysterious, and remorseless court. His The Castle (1926) depicts a village ruled by inscrutable and omnipotent authorities from a nearby castle. In Israel in the 1950s, Appelfeld met and studied with intellectuals who had known Kafka, including Kafka’s biographer Max Brod.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

A lukewarm reception, an unpopular subject

Little Holocaust literature was published in Israel until nearly a generation had passed. In the early dates of statehood, the Holocaust was a topic rarely addressed, despite the influx of survivors: “At the time people in Israel weren’t interested in the Holocaust. It was a heroic age, and people said, ‘Don’t speak about the Holocaust. Forget it. We are making a new Jew here, a blunt and blond Jew. We are remaking ourselves’” (Appelfeld in Wolfe, p. 358). The very idea of being a victim was repugnant to many; reminders of the Holocaust seemed to undermine the robust strength of the new Jew, the heroic antithesis of the European ghetto-dwelling and concentration-camp victim. The refugees themselves, brought to Israel from Displaced Persons camps in Cyprus and elsewhere, met with a mixed reception in the recently established homeland. To some degree, this was the plight of most newcomers, due to the fledgling nation’s limited resources in the face of mass immigration. Refugees from the Holocaust, however, experienced a reception that was even less warm and welcoming, because of the focus on the “new” Jew and, in some cases, because of lingering suspicions. There were those who wondered what the victims had done to survive the Holocaust—had they collaborated with the Nazis? did the women compromise their honor? One survivor recalls the unsympathetic atmosphere that she experienced:

Most painful to me was the denigration of the Holocaust and pre-state Jewish life by many of my Israeli friends. From them, those times of shame when Jews were weak and passive, inferior and unworthy, deserving not of our respect but of our disdain. “We will never allow ourselves to be slaughtered again or go so willingly to our slaughter,” they would say. There was little need to understand those millions who perished or the lives they lived. There was even less need to honor them [at the time].

(Roy, p. 8)

Until the 1960s the Holocaust was not a popular subject in Hebrew literature. The trial of Adolf Eichmann (1961) for the most part, but also the first payments of German war reparations and Israel’s decisive victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, contributed to its becoming a key theme in Israeli fiction. In addition to Appelfeld’s own Ashan (1962, Smoke), Yehudah Amichai’s Lo me-akhshav lo mi-kan (1963; Not of This Time, Not of This Place, 1968), Haim Guri’s Iskat ha-shokolad (1965; The Chocolate Deal, 1968), and Ben-Tsiyon Tomer’s Yalde ha-tsel (1963; Children of the Shadows, 1973) were among the first works to address the subject. While Appelfeld belongs to this wave of writers chronologically, his lyrical style and hauntingly Kafkaesque sensibility, as well as his personal experience with the Holocaust, set him apart. The next wave of writers would include those of the second generation (such as Savyon Liebrecht), whose parents were survivors, as well as those without personal connection to the Holocaust, who have nevertheless invoked it in their writings (see, for example, Grossman’s See Under: Love , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). The immensity of the subject and its ineffability have led to some of the most creative writing in Israel, as demonstrated by Badenheim 39.

From extermination to survival

By the spring of 1945, as Allied armies closed in on the German capital of Berlin, the European continent lay in ruins. Starting the previous summer, several hundred thousand Jews had perished in so-called death marches, as the Germans shoved them away from the camps ahead of the advancing Allied troops. Others were slaughtered as the Allies approached. As they liberated the camps, Allied soldiers encountered numerous mass graves of the recent dead in addition to the living skeletons that were the survivors. Numbering an estimated 600,000, survivors were discovered in groups of perhaps 5,000 to 50,000, as appalled Allied soldiers liberated camp after camp.

When the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, tens of millions of people who had been swept up by the storm of war found themselves far from home. All of these Displaced Persons had been uprooted, all were deeply traumatized, but no group was more physically and psychologically devastated than the emaciated, numbed survivors of the Nazi camps. The Allies established a network of temporary camps for Europe’s Displaced Persons, supplying medical care, food, and shelter until repatriation could be effected. But while many Europeans wished to make their way home, others had strong reasons not to do so. By September 1945 nearly 3 million remained in the camps. Among them were the surviving remnants of Europe’s Jews, few of whom wanted to return to their places of origin. Of Austria’s 185,000 Jews in 1938, only about 1,000 remained in Austria in 1945, and fewer than 2,000 refugees returned to join them after the war. More than 65,000 Austrian Jews died in the Holocaust.

As Zionists and other Jewish agencies worked to bring Jews to Palestine, they gave special priority to the children. Like Aharon Appelfeld, thousands of young Jews were shepherded onto ships that left European ports filled with hopeful emigrants to Palestine, the Jews’ ancient holy land.

Riddled with guilt at its own inadequate response to the Holocaust, the international community supported the foundation in 1948 of the independent Jewish state of Israel. The new state was bolstered by a continuing influx of European Jewish immigrants, its population more than doubling from 1948 to nearly 2 million in 1961. By 1980 Israel had fought several successful wars against the hostile Arab countries that surrounded it. All the while the Holocaust has had a continuing effect on Israeli politics and foreign and security policies.

Publication and reception

Badenheim 1939 was first published in 1975 under the Hebrew title “Badenheim ‘ir nofesh” (Badenheim, Resort Town), as one of two short works in the volume Shanim ve-sha‘ot (Years and Hours). The Hebrew version appeared on its own as Badenheim‘ir nofesh in 1979, followed the highly praised English translation (by Dalya Bilu) in the United States in 1980. The English version changes the title in a way that emphasizes the historical context, although the text itself does not reveal any precise year in which the events are purported to take place.

Both Hebrew editions of the story were praised by Israeli reviewers, and the English translation garnered immediate attention from English-language critics. One critic compared the novel favorably with those of Kafka, and several observed that its stylized presentation helps lend the narrative a universal significance. By slightly blurring the specific historical circumstances of the Holocaust, they said, Appelfeld suggests that it was a catastrophe for all humanity, rather than one limited to Jews alone. At the same time these critics recognized the centrality of the Jewish experience to the narrative itself. Some of them attacked the novel for representing assimilated Jews as unattractive—the implication being that they themselves were somehow partly to blame for their fate. Others countered that a negative portrayal of literary characters does not add up to the author’s blaming them for their fate.

A number of critics singled out the novel’s darkly ironic humor, praising the stylistic mastery with which Appelfeld evokes both laughter and horror even while describing the most trivial scenes in the blandest language. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Irving Howe captured the reactions of many critics. Calling Badenheim 1939 “a small masterpiece,” Howe wondered rhetorically how its author could “achieve so unnerving an aura of anxiety even though his story is simply an accumulation of banal incidents” (Howe, p. 1). One possible answer is that this powerful but indirect tale relies for its full impact upon the reader’s own historical knowledge of what comes next.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Appelfeld, Aharon. Badenheim 1939. Trans. Dalya Bilu. Boston: David R. Godine, 1980.

Bukey, Evan Burr. Hitler’s Austria: Popular Sentiment in the Nazi Era, 1938–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Flanagan, Thomas. Review of Badenheim 1939. The Nation 232 (31 January 1981): 122.

Friedlander, Saul. Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Howe, Irving. “Novels of Other Times and Places.” The New York Times Book Review, 23 November 1980, p. 1.

Niewyk, Donald, and Francis Nicosia. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Ramras-Rauch, Gila. “Aharon Appelfeld: A Hundred Years of Jewish Solitude.” World Literature Today 72, no. 3 (summer 1998): 493–551.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. “Duino Elegies: The First Elegy.” In Possibility of Being: A Selection of Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. J.B. Leishman. New York: New Directions, 1977.

Roy, Sara. “Living with the Holocaust: The Journey of a Child of Holocaust Survivors.” Journal of Palestine Studies 32, no. 1 (autumn 2002): 5–12.

Schneider, Gertrude. Exile and Destruction: The Fate of Austrian Jews, 1938–1945. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995.

Wolfe, Linda. “Aharon Applefeld: Re-telling the Unimaginable.” Publishers Weekly 245, no. 3 (19 January 1998): 358–59.

Wyman, Mark. DP: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945–1951. Philadelphia: Balch Institute Press, 1989.

Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.