Badenheim 1939 (Badenheim, 'Ir Nofesh)

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BADENHEIM 1939 (Badenheim, 'ir nofesh)

Novel by Aharon Appelfeld, 1975

Published in Hebrew as Badenheim, 'ir nofesh in 1975 and in English five years later, Badenheim 1939 established Aharon Appelfeld as an important, serious writer. This "small masterpiece," as critic Irving Howe described it, introduced readers to Appelfeld's minimalist, controlled, restrained style, reminiscent of Franz Kafka not only in technique but also by the presence of a ubiquitous, oppressive, remote bureaucratic authority. Badenheim is an Austrian resort, high in the mountains, the summer home of middle-class assimilated Jews who had, in previous seasons, enjoyed its music festival. The summer population of Jews includes the spectrum of intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, merchants, and professionals that Appelfeld recalled from his boyhood summers in similar spas: "shockingly petit-bourgeois and idiotic in their formalities. Even as a child I saw how ridiculous they were."

Local shopkeepers and hotel staff round out the panoply of Badenheim's residents, all of whom balk slightly at the arbitrary, incremental measures imposed on them by the Sanitation Department. These intrusions parallel the process that led to the Final Solution—first, identification through registration, then the isolation made visible by the barbed wire that transforms the resort into a ghetto and by the cessation of both telephone service and the distribution of food and medicine, and eventually deportation to the east. Stripped of all contact with the rest of the world, the Jews are left alone, paralyzed by circumstances that deceive and disable them. They create a semblance of their cultural life of previous summers and entertain one another unenthusiastically with concerts, poetry readings, endless intellectual and banal talk, and finally petty accusations and arguments about their Jewish identities. They try to interpret the severe edicts by concocting plausible reasons. Unable to relinquish their trust in rational thought and logic, they delude themselves and find excuses for optimism. They await the inevitable train to Poland, which some anticipate as a homecoming and others accept with resignation. Placing the novel in its historical reality, readers are well aware of the doom that awaits the Badenheimers, but Appelfeld allows his characters no such foreknowledge. This is, after all, 1939, a difficult time for all Jews but less so, some of the characters reason, for those who consciously and optimistically have molded themselves into the general, sophisticated non-Jewish culture of central Europe. By 1939, as Appelfeld so artistically portrays, there was no way out except surrender to the authorities or suicide, which both history and the novel demonstrate.

Appelfeld's Badenheim is dreamlike, with few but unmistakable concrete images that evoke the absurd: the prodigious supply of medicines of the pharmacist's wife that do not heal, the new fish in the aquarium that massacre other fish, dogs too weak to jump fences, pink ice cream and pastries that lull the summer visitors into self-deception. Irony pervades the novel, although there are no explicit or unambiguous references to the Nazis or the Holocaust. In an interview with Philip Roth in March 1988, Appelfeld explained his ahistoricity as an expression of his childlike, innocent memory of "contact with … a kind of dark subconscious the meaning of which we did not know, nor do we know to this day … This world appears to be rational … but in fact these were journeys of the imagination, lies and ruses, which only deep, irrational drives could have invented. I didn't understand, nor do I yet understand the motives of the murderers."

—Myrna Goldenberg