Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers – Voltaire
Odd title since the book ends when its protagonist is fifteen and really only concentrates on the last two of those years in which, frankly, little happens other than—through luck mostly as she’s not the brightest of girls—she survives the Second World War as a Jew in eastern Europe (most likely Transnistria) without being sent to one of the territory’s two concentration camps or several ghettos. The book opens:
Perhaps it would be better to leave the story of Tzili Kraus's life untold. Her fate was a cruel and inglorious one, and but for the fact that it actually happened we would never have been able to tell her story. We will tell it in all simplicity.
Why this tale? Because it happened. If it is indeed true that everyone has at least one book within them then every Jew—and, of course, not only the Jews—who lived through (or partway through) World War II has a story to tell but not all are capable of telling theirs. Tzili Kraus certainly isn’t in fact if this book were indeed written in the first person it would be far shorter than the short book it already is and certainly less insightful. Tzili has been laconic to a fault from infancy:
Her father was an invalid and her mother busy all day long in their little shop. In the evening, sometimes without even thinking, one of her brothers or sisters would pick her out of the dirt and take her into the house. She was a quiet creature, devoid of charm and almost mute. Tzili would get up early in the morning and go to bed at night like a squirrel, without complaints or tears.
When I wrote Tzili, I was about forty. At that time I was interested in the possibilities of naïveness in art. Can there be a naïve modern art? It seemed to me without naïveté still found among children and old people, and, to some extent, in ourselves, the work of art would be flawed. [In Tzili] I tried to correct that flaw.
Few could be more innocent that Tzili—Rochelle Furstenberg in a commentary on Tzili: A Story of a Life, describes the girl as “a brilliant agent, a tabula rasa for recording this primal world to which man is returned as a consequence of the Nazi evil”—but she’s not entirely without common sense. Her first encounter once abandoned by her family—“They thought nobody would harm a feeble-minded little girl, and until the storm had spent itself, she could take care of their property for them”—is with a blind man who, when she is silent when he asks, “Who do you belong to?” makes a fortuitous assumption:
“You’re Maria’s daughter, aren’t you?” he said and chuckled.
“Yes,” said Tzili, lowering her voice.
“So we’re not strangers.”
Maria’s name was a household word throughout the district. She had many daughters, all bastards. Because they were all good-looking, like their mother, nobody harmed them. Young and old alike availed themselves of their favours. Even the Jews who came for the summer holidays. In Tzili’s house Maria’s name was never spoken directly.
From then on whenever asked she tells people she is one of Maria’s daughters and it seems everyone knows Maria and not for her charitable work. Most importantly Maria was not a Jew and as Tzili doesn’t look especially Jewish herself no one thinks twice about it. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t encounter bigotry and abuse but better to be beaten for being the daughter of a whore than a Jewess. The abuse she undergoes would leave most people flabbergasted nowadays but it was a different time then. There were no carrots to induce good behaviour. Obedience was something imposed upon a child—“Spare the rod and spoil the child”—as if they were animals whose wills were to be broken. When an old woman whose home she’s forced into during bad weather beats her it’s not out of badness:
The bastard had to be beaten so that she would know who she was and what she had to do to mend her ways. The woman would beat her fervently, as if she were performing some secret religious duty.
“What have I done wrong?” Tzili once asked incautiously.
“You were born in sin,” said the old woman. “A woman born in sin has to be cleansed, she has to be purified.”
“How is that done?” asked Tzili meekly.
“I’ll help you,” said the old woman.
She, of course, believes that the girl will grow up to be like her mother and finding her husband trying to crawl into Tzili’s bed does nothing to help the situation:
It was from her that you learned your wicked ways. Why are you silent? You can tell us. We know your mother only too well. Her and all her scandals.
Eventually the girl can take no more and flees. Just as she’d fled from the first home she’d found protection in, just as she’d fled the blind man when he tried to take advantage of her. She’s treated like a piece of meat, an animal. In a third house where she’s sought shelter and ended up being beaten “as if she were a rebellious animal, in a passion of rage and fury” she finally snatches the rope from the woman but that doesn’t stop the woman who simply uses her fists on her instead.
Eventually Tzili finds herself alone in the swampland. There she encounters Mark, a fellow Jew, and for the first time since her parents left she experiences some genuine human kindness. This is where she spends the rest of the war and this section reminded me somewhat of Blooms of Darkness the only other book by Appelfeld I’ve read.
Having recently read J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello I couldn’t help but be struck by the number of references to animals in this book, the section in Coetzee’s book where Abraham Stern writes a letter objecting to Costello’s lecture in which she compares Jews to cattle in particular:
You took over for your own purposes the familiar comparison between the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle. The Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle die like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words which I will not accept.
Tzili on more than one occasion is compared to some kind of animal or insect. When, for example, she flees the old peasant woman who beats her we’re told that “she was content, like a lost animal whose neck has been freed from its yoke at last.” Mark’s often uses the expression, “A man is not an insect” (he also says that “man is not a mole” referring to the underground bunker he and Tzili spend much of their time in), and yet when Tzili eventually joins the Jews returning from the camps that’s exactly how she sees them and is drawn to them as one of them:
At that time the great battlefronts were collapsing, and the first refugees were groping their way across the broad fields of snow. Against the vast whiteness they looked like swarms of insects. Tzili was drawn toward them as if she realized that her fate was no different from theirs.
The central theme of Appelfeld’s book really concerns itself with this question: What is a man? He’s not as in your face about it as, say, Primo Levi…
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
“The Metamorphosis” nicely illuminates the shared territories of these two writers. Equally important, the Kafka text shadows forth the radical differences between them, placing Appelfeld more firmly in the tradition of Agnon than Kafka. For if Kafka’s story opens up the unadulterated devastation of the world it figures forth, Appelfeld’s lifts up off the grid of the naturalistic and the grotesque in order to provide a very different site for the interpretation of the human. – Emily Miller Budick, Aharon Appelfeld’s Fiction: Acknowledging the Holocaust, p.113
Appelfeld is often enough compared to Kafka, at least that’s what I’ve read. They seem miles apart to me. But his influence is there:
Like others of my generation at the University, I read Kafka and Camus with a thirst. These were the founding prophets from whom I sought to learn. And like all primary education of the young, so mine tended towards extremes.
Russian literature saved me from the pitfalls of the mist and the symbol. From Russian literature I learned that there is no need of either one: reality, if correctly described, by itself produces the evocatively symbolic. Indeed, every specifically contextualised object is itself a symbol. – Aharon Appelfeld, The Story of a Life, p.150
Interesting that the memoir is entitled The Story of a Life and the novel, at least in English, is subtitled A Story of a Life. In Hebrew the book’s original title was Haketonet Ve'hapassim which translates as The Shirt and the Stripes, a play on the Bible's coat of many colours. So what’s the story of Joseph got to do with this book?
The disjunction of construct nouns indicates an inversion of the story of Joseph. Joseph is hated by his brothers because of his cunning and beauty; Tzili is despised because of her dull and homely appearance. Joseph rises to the pinnacle of society because of his genius; Tzili survives on the margin of society because of her simplicity. Joseph is the paradigm of the Jew who successfully assimilates into high society; Tzili is the failed human being who lives in a society into which it is not worth assimilating. – Norbert Weinberg, TZILI: The Story of a Life
In Tzili’s case the stripes, of course, are literal:
Toward the end of winter the old woman lost control of herself. She beat Tzili indiscriminately. “If I don’t make her mend her ways, who will?” She beat her devoutly with a wet rope so that the strokes would leave their mark on her back.
What’s really interesting about this book is the fact that it never deals directly with the war or the Holocaust. This is as much as we get:
That same night the soldiers invaded the town and destroyed it. A terrible wailing rose into the air. But Tzili, for some reason, escaped unharmed. Perhaps they didn’t see her. She lay in the yard, among the barrels in the shed, covered with sacking.
Why this book is so powerful is because it deals with the consequences of war without the horrors of war. It’s like a Shakespearian play in that respect; the battles all take place offstage. Appelfeld similarly uses elision to great effect. Also he reminds us that life goes on even during wartime. Anne Frank became romantically entangled with the shy and awkward Peter van Pels because he was there and Hugo does the same. So, in some ways the same, but also very different. Whereas Anne writes compulsively, Hugo struggles to write and allows lethargy to overwhelm him.
Tzili, too, as I’ve suggested, needs someone to tell her story. Even when she finally does engage with survivors of the camps they don’t want to talk about their experiences. When she (unusually for her) asks a young man, Max Engelbaum, “Where were you during the war?” This is how he replies:
“Why do you ask? With everyone else, of course. Can’t you see?” he said and stretched out his arm. There was a number there, tattooed in dark blue on his skin. “But I don’t want to talk about it. If I start talking about it, I’ll never stop. I’ve made up my mind that from now on I’m starting my life again. And for me that means studying. Completing my studies, to be precise.”
All he wants is to get back home, finish his exams and get on with his life:
I have no intention of spending my time sleeping. And in general, if you understand me, I don’t want to spend any more time in the company of these people.
He leaves and she drifts on. In that respect at least she is very much the archetypal wandering Jew.
But why The Story of a Life? Again, in his conversation with Philip Roth, the author explains:
I have never written about things as they happened. All my works are indeed chapters from my most personal experience, but nevertheless they are not “the story of my life.” The things that happened to me in my life have already happened, they are already formed, and time has kneaded them and given them shape. To write things as they happened means to enslave oneself to memory, which is only a minor element in the creative process…
I tried several times to write “the story of my life” in the woods after I ran away from the camp. But all my efforts were in vain…
…[T]he moment I chose a girl, a little older than I was at the time, I removed “the story of my life” from the mighty grip of memory and gave it over to the creative laboratory.
In 1941 the Romanian Army retook his hometown after a year of Soviet occupation and his mother was murdered; he was nine-and-a-half at the time. Appelfeld was deported with his father first to a ghetto and then to a Nazi concentration camp in Romanian-controlled Transnistria. He escaped and hid for three years before joining the Soviet army as a cook. It’s interesting to hear how he describes his escape from the camp in The Paris Review:
INTERVIEWER: You escaped by yourself?
APPELFELD: By myself, yes.
INTERVIEWER: But you were a little boy—elegant, not particularly courageous. What happened? How did you transform yourself into a child capable of escape?
APPELFELD: It was a kind of transformation—I became a small animal. It was the wish for life, the wish to survive. [bold mine]
At first this feels like a slight and slightly deadpan book. But it’s hard not to empathise with Tzili. She becomes what she needs to to survive. That it happens to be set during the Second World War is academic really. The action could be transferred to any part of the globe and any of the many conflicts that’ve plagued the world since then. Someone on Goodreads described this as a “short and easy read” and it is. It would be so easy to read this on a rainy Saturday afternoon and then make your tea and watch Strictly and in a day or two you’ve moved onto something else. If you do decide to give this one a go try not to do that. Questions are always shorter and easier to express than their answers. What is a man? It’s not a hard question to ask. Not hard at all.