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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Reading Appelfeld's The Story of a Life

The very short seventh chapter of Aharon Appelfeld's memoir begins with a simple sentence:

I met wonderful people during the long years of the war.

He cannot recall many of them because 'it went by in such a blur'. Appelfeld was still only a child after all. 'Children were like the straw on which everyone trod.'

The chapter remembers one particular woman who helped an abandoned four-year-old child as they awaited, with hundreds of others, Appelfeld among them, transportation from a Ukrainian railway station.

With simple observation, description and dialogue Appelfeld revives a forgotten moment and makes it unforgettable. It is one of the most distressing things to read.

This is easy to say. There's a tendency toward masochism and Schadenfreude in reading about those times. How is it really distressing?

When I put the book down, I got on with my day. I have read such things before and carried on. Lawrence Langer's Holocaust Testimonies: the ruins of memory is full of similar stories where past or future are not provided for narrative enclosure. Langer's thesis is that video testimony offers a truer account of the holocaust (in psychological terms if not also historical) as the testifiers are less likely to engage in literary conventions (beginnings, middles and ends).

As I got on with my day, one psychological effect that struck me was that I responded to the story in the way I respond to fiction. This is not to say I don't believe Appelfeld. It is not a question of belief. To answer it so would be to avoid the story itself. The story is only ever potential. This is distressing.

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