Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How Low Can We Go?

Very Low, it seems.

Reading Aharon Appelfeld's The Story of a Life gives the reader a the strange sensation that what is happening is both too real and hard to believe.

This is not to say that what he writes about did not happen. It just strains the reader's ability to believe that human beings can sink to such levels of depravity (and they can, we know this to be so). And there is no greater barometer on how low human nature can sink than the treatment of other people's children. The instinct to protect children is strong within us. We more readily slow our car when we see a small child on a bicycle than an adult. A lost adult looking for directions may be an irritant, a crying child that has lost a mother is worthy of our support and tenderness.

Appelfeld's mother was shot early in the war, and he and his father were forced to march for two months across the Ukraine to a camp. There, Appelfeld escaped, and he lived for two years in the forests and fields, sometimes living with abusive peasants, but most of the time alone in forests. This memoir reads as one long depredation. Appelfeld is abused by nearly everyone he meets. But he always provides counter-examples of people who gave him support at critical moments --- moments that helped him survive.

He also touches on a topic that nearly all survivors of great traumas experience: how words seem to degrade memory. Appelfeld has written nearly 30 works on the war years, but still struggles to couch it in language. The Holocaust defies mimesis. How can the unimaginable be couched in such a pedestrian thing as language?

Yoram Hazony, in his book A Jewish State, takes issue with Appelfeld's comparing his experience in the Israeli army with life in the camps.  It seems particularly unfair that Hazony would cherry pick this statement to prove that this author, and many others, are not proper Zionists.  He states this despite the fact that it is well-known that Holocaust survivors were looked own upon in the early years of the Jewish state, and that Appelfeld, and others like him, who were suffering from trauma, were forced to suppress their memories and forget who and what they are.  

Hazony leaves no room for subtle shades of feeling among his so-called anti-Zionist foes.  How can a man like Appelfeld not feel ambivalent toward a Jewish state that does little but humble and belittle him?

Appelfeld's memoir is another example of a post-Zionist work; a work trying to wrest new meanings out of the experience of being a Jew in a Jewish state.  Everyone has a voice.  All voices have something to add.

No comments:

Post a Comment