Israeli literary giant Aharon Appelfeld dies at 85

Aharon Appelfeld, a child Holocaust survivor, was one of Israel’s foremost writers, with dozens of collections of short stories and novels to his credit that were translated into 35 languages.

By: Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Aharon Appelfeld, a prolific author whose latest work was published just last year, passed away Thursday at the age of 85. He was considered one of Israel’s greatest writers, receiving the Israel Prize for Literature in 1983 as well as a host of other honors, including the National Jewish Book Award twice and the Prix Medicis.

Appelfeld was born in Romania in 1932 to an assimilated family of intellectuals. The Nazis murdered his mother when he was eight years old and then he was deported with his father to a concentration camp in Transnistria. Both escaped from the camp, but at different times. Appelfeld spent the next three years wandering, surviving as a shepherd boy while hiding his Jewish origins. It would be 20 years until he and his father were reunited.

At age 12 he joined the Russian army as a junior cook and made his way to Palestine via Italy in 1946. He then went to school for the first time since first grade, eventually graduating from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and beginning his writing career by publishing stories in the Hebrew press in the 1950s.

Appelfeld is considered a pioneer of the modern Hebrew language. In a December 1982 interview in the Boston Review while on sabbatical in the United States, he told interviewer Ann Parsons, “You know, I’m lucky that I’m writing in Hebrew. Hebrew is a very precise language…no over-saying. This is because of your Bible tradition. In the Bible tradition you have very small sentences, very concise and autonomic. Every sentence, in itself, has to have its own meaning.”

‘To be a Jewish writer is a heavy obligation’

He was a quintessentially Jewish writer, with strong biographical elements in his works and much related to the Holocaust and Jewish life before and after World War II.

“To be a Jewish writer is a heavy obligation,” he told Parsons. “My close family was killed. My natural environment, my childhood, my sweetest memories were killed. And so it’s a kind of obligation that I feel; I’m dealing with a civilization that has been killed. How to represent it in the most honorable way–not to equalize it, not to exaggerate, but to find the right proportion to represent it, in human terms.”

Some of Appelfeld’s most famous books are Badenheim 1939, The Immortal Bartfuss, and his autobiography, The Story of a Life: A Memoir. As almost no author can make a living solely from writing, he was also a literature professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 31 years.

Appelfeld is survived by his wife and three children.