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Tzili: The Story of a Life (Ketonet Veha-Pasim)

TZILI: THE STORY OF A LIFE (Ketonet veha-pasim)

Novel by Aharon Appelfeld, 1983

In Tzili: The Story of a Life, originally published in Hebrew as Ketonet veha-pasim , Aharon Appelfeld weaves the themes of the assimilated yet marginal Jew and the redemptive nature of the physical—both the body and the natural environment—into a tapestry onto which he inscribes Tzili's growth from lonely silence to expressive independence. Unable to write stories when restricted to historical memory, Appelfeld wrote Tzili from his own story—but only up to a point. He transformed the boy Erwin Appelfeld into the slightly older Tzili and created an unforgettable, sympathetic victim. Like Erwin, Tzili is alone, left to wander in the forests, where she learns to survive by responding to her physical needs. She learns to eat roots, to wash in cold rivers and streams, to seek other marginal people, particularly the village prostitute, and to move across the East European landscape with other survivors. Finally, she emigrates to Palestine with them. She has learned to expect little and demand nothing. As the critic Inga Clendinnen has succinctly explained, Tzili, like Appelfeld, lost her family and her childhood to the Nazis.

Unlike the young Appelfeld, Tzili, "devoid of charm and almost mute," is neither bright nor ambitious. The youngest in a large family, she is the object of ridicule by her invalid father, shopkeeper mother, brothers, sisters, and schoolmates. She finds amusement by playing alone in the dirt, but her family decides that she needs instruction, so they hire an old tutor whose family abandoned him when they emigrated to America. She absorbs her lessons and recites by rote the teaching that man is but dust and ashes, a being that must follow Torah. Religious training notwithstanding, as a "Jewish girl without any brains," she humiliates the family. Assuming that no one would bother to harm her, they leave her alone to tend the house when the war starts.

However victimized, Tzili is also a survivor. She instinctively resists being raped by a blind old villager who assumes that she is the daughter of a prostitute, overcomes the terror of her first menstruation, and gradually welcomes affection from Mark, an assimilated, urbane Jew who also hides in the forest after escaping from a camp where he left his wife and children. Eventually he is smothered by guilt and unable to endure his isolation and dependence on Tzili, who goes into the plains to barter the clothes of Mark's family for food, cigarettes, and vodka. These are necessities for Mark, who cannot adapt to hiding in the forests. He leaves their bunker for the village, confident that he has overcome his fears and can survive in the plains just as Tzili had. Despite his attempts to assimilate, however, Mark remains identifiably Jewish, while Tzili does not. Her self-sufficiency, trust in her instinct, and guileless interaction with the townspeople enable her to move freely, though cautiously, among them. After Mark leaves, Tzili is bereft and spends the harsh winter searching for him, carrying his haversack and his baby. As he haunts her wanderings, she draws strength and dignity from his oft repeated truth that "A man is not an insect." When she joins a group of survivors, newly liberated by the advancing Red Army, she is no longer marginal; like them, she is homeless. They journey south to Zagreb together, where they board a ship to Palestine, but not before Tzili delivers a stillborn infant and, in so doing, sheds the remnants of her European identity in preparation for a new life.

The Appelfeld scholar Gila Ramras-Rauch has attributed part of Tzili's maturity and independence to her purification by water; she drinks from streams, cleanses herself in rivers, and "above all she had learned the virtues of the wind and the water." A "huge body of water," the sea, will give her "yet another chance for a new start." The character Tzili embodies a past that embraced a non-Jewish European culture that rejected Jews and Jewishness and a future that is centered on Palestine. We are grateful that Appelfeld did not heed the implication of his opening line, "Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus' life untold."

—Myrna Goldenberg

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