In Tzili: The Story of a Life, Aharon Appelfeld takes a time honored literary trope: that of the retarded, or mentally backward character, and throws him or her into the maelstrom of history.
Tzili is such a character, the youngest of a large family of Jews living somewhere in Eastern Europe or Russia at the beginning of the Second World War. She is unable to study like her brothers and sisters, and is taught a little Torah and prayers from a teacher, even though the family is secular. A sense of religion comes to her; in her simplicity, she appears to get a glimpse of God.
But her world is utterly destroyed, and Tzili is forced into the forests, living among Gentile peasants, and finally in DP camps and among refuges. Appelfeld’s novel is a kind of looking glass on Jewish suffering in the twentieth century, and by extension, to the destruction of a sense of humanity in our times. Through Tzili, we see the impossibility of fulfilling even the most basic human emotional needs in dehumanizing times.