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The Retreat (Ha 'Pisgah)

THE RETREAT (Ha 'pisgah)

Novel by Aharon Appelfeld, 1982

Aharon Appelfeld's novel The Retreat, which appeared in English in 1984, was originally published in Hebrew as Ha'pisgah ("The Summit") in 1982. The fourth Appelfeld novel to be published in English, it is an ironic parable about death, the death of the illusion that pre-Anschluss and pre-war Jews will remedy their defects, "two hundred defects—no small number in relation to one human being," by taking on Gentile values and habits. The retreat itself is an isolated mountain hotel used for this single purpose. It fails, of course, and the residents who have not died or left for home await their fate with passive resignation.

Located near Vienna, the retreat is nearly inaccessible, reminiscent of Franz Kafka's castle. Not all of the residents choose to live there; some are forced to do so by circumstances. The aging, penniless actress Lotte Schloss, for example, has no choice because she cannot live with her daughter, Julia, who is married to a Gentile Austrian farmer of no culture or sensitivity. As in other Appelfeld stories that portray Gentile men who marry Jewish girls from assimilated families, this boor beats Lotte's daughter, who passively endures her life. Painfully aware that she was fired from the acting company because she was Jewish and that her three grandsons will, like their father, despise her, Lotte unwillingly journeys to the retreat where Jews, though vulgar and commonplace, are at least generous. Others have been lured to the retreat by Balaban, its founder, who promised them a life of physical activity—running, calisthenics, swimming, horseback riding—lessons in shedding their Jewish accents, indigestible diet, and ugly mannerisms. He promised the hotel guests that he would, as a result of this non-Jewish regimen, "turn the sickly members of his race into a healthy breed." Indeed, Herbert Zuntz, a renowned journalist who was fired because he was Jewish, tells Lotte that he is now taller because his back is straighter and that his nerves are calmer; he has managed to rid himself of a major Jewish defect: weak nerves. Balaban's experiment does not last, however. The residents go back to their old ways and grow flabby; when one of them, Isadora, commits suicide, Lotte reads Rilke at the graveside. Balaban and others die, and the remaining residents appear to begin to die. They grow as bleak as the landscape, but as Appelfeld has said elsewhere, Jews are by nature optimists. Thus, the residents do not surrender their illusions that they will become cultured Viennese if they continue Balaban's process.

The Retreat belies its quiet sparseness. Thematically similar to Badenheim 1939 but much darker, Appelfeld's controlled narrative is deceptively simple and apolitical. The characters are desperate, urbane Europeans who delude themselves into believing that they are at blame because, says Engel, one of the residents, "Anything is possible, All you need is the will, and that we have in full measure." They have enough will, they are convinced, to overcome their "decayed inheritance," the reason another resident offers for his conversion. Like many other works by Appelfeld, The Retreat is a profound confrontation with alienation from the self, the embarrassment of having been born Jewish, and the memory of one's roots. The Appelfeld critic Gila Ramras-Rauch has interpreted Balaban's project as one of physical and spiritual suicide. For example, the mountaintop hotel, originally a monastery, was organized as a vehicle to accomplish the suicide of Jewish memory and thereby the elimination of the "defective" Jew, or inevitably the physical suicide of a people. Yet at the end, when the hotel is impoverished and the men are assaulted when they venture into town to sell the residents' jewels, clothes, and other material items, the community draws closer, and "they helped one another. If a man fell or was beaten he was not abandoned."

—Myrna Goldenberg

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