In an Anti-Semitic Cloud

BOOKS

By , Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.

BORN in Bukovina, the Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld has evoked the lost world of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe in novels like "Badenheim 1939," "The Age of Wonders," "Tzili," and "To the Land of the Cattails."

While no one could accuse Appelfeld, a survivor of the concentration camps, of investing his novels with a sense of nostalgia for a vanished age of simplicity, his portrayal of the pre-World War II period is marked by a sense of the innocence - and ignorance - that blinded the future victims of the Nazis to the horrible fate that would overtake them.

The quiet middle-class resort of "Badenheim," the rural, rather backward "land of the cattails" are strewn with signs and portents of things to come, but destruction on the scale of Auschwitz seems all but unimaginable.

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But in Appelfeld's latest novel, "Katerina," the seeds of the coming catastrophe, like dragon's teeth, are everywhere, and they cut very sharply into the consciousness of the reader and eponymous narrator alike.

"Katerina" is the story of a Ruthenian peasant woman, a Christian who is brought up with all the anti-Jewish prejudices typical of her fellow countrymen, but who later forms a deep attachment to the Jewish families and individuals she comes to know through working as a housekeeper in their homes.

The novel opens with 80-year-old Katerina returning to her native village. Living from day to day in a state of strangely visionary tranquillity, she recollects the many and troubling events of her life:

"The years in a foreign land distanced me from these marvels, and they were obliterated from my memory, but not, apparently, from my heart. Now I know that light is what drew me back."

In the light of "brilliant summer nights, when the line between heaven and earth is erased," Katerina first recalls her youth. The pastoral landscape concealed a harsh, even brutal world of dictatorial fathers, riotous drunkenness, and coarse sensuality.

As a young woman, Katerina is "rescued" from this world by a Jewish woman who offers her a job as a housekeeper. Although she was raised to be suspicious of Jews, Katerina takes the job and soon becomes familiar with the ways of this pious family.

The initial recoil she feels from these pale, bookish, indoorish people who seem so sober and quiet in their ways is gradually transformed to an odd kind of love, respect, and tenderness. She admits that they are "different," and sometimes, this difference disturbs her:

"The youngsters studied from early morning till late in the evening. That's not the way to teach children; that's how you train priests and monks. Among us, we scarcely studied for four hours. With them they stick a book in a baby's hand before he opens his eyes; is it any wonder that their faces are puffy and pinkish?"

But the more she hears her Ruthenian countrymen berate them, the more she begins to worry about what will happen to them. Looking at the family's two little sons as they sleep, she wonders, "Dear Lord, they're so frail. Who will defend them in a time of trouble? Everybody hates them, and everybody wants to harm them."

Katerina understands her countrymen all too well because she was raised to hold their attitudes: She remembers being told that Jews killed Jesus, that they lie, cheat, and are cowardly, and she has seen parties of her friends and acquaintances going out on drunken sprees in which they "hunt" Jews. When the Germans finally march in and start to round up the Jews, the local populace is delighted.

Yet while all this is going on around her, Katerina becomes more and more closely tied to the Jews. She is secretly in love with the father of the two boys, and when he is killed in an anti-Semitic incident, she is drawn closer to his widow, sharing her grief. When the mother is also killed by another group of rampaging thugs, Katerina rescues the children, taking them to the relative safety of her native village, where she tries to teach them to be hardier and bolder in defending themselves.

Reluctantly yielding the boys to the care of their relatives, Katerina next finds work in the household of a different kind of Jew: a sophisticated, nonobservant, brilliantly gifted pianist, a high-strung woman whose artistic perfectionism takes its toll on her health and well-being. Although Katerina is not used to Jews who don't "keep kosher" and observe Jewish holidays, she soon forms a strong bond with her delicate, brave, and cultivated employer.

But Katerina's most important bond with the Jews is formed when she gives birth to a little boy as a result of a love affair with a gentle, but defeated Jewish man who spends too much time in taverns. He has little interest in the child or in the future. Katerina, however, names the child Benjamin (after her first employer, whom she loved), and is determined to raise him as a Jew, even though almost everyone she meets - Jew or Gentile - thinks she is only imposing a needless burden on the boy.

As the mother of a Jewish child, Katerina has aligned herself inextricably with the Jews, even though she does not become Jewish herself. The tragic events that follow make her an outcast in her society, yet bring out the greatness of her character.

In telling this story through Katerina's eyes, Appelfeld is able to portray anti-Semitism from the perspective of the non-Jew, while recording the freshness of the outrage as felt by a sympathetic Gentile who is not in any way prepared for, let alone inured to, bearing the brunt of bigotry.

Without taking the reader inside the living nightmare of the death camps, without showing a single scene of mass destruction, Appelfeld brilliantly recreates the climate of suspicion, fear, and deep-dyed prejudice that made these monstrous events possible.

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