The Jews That Never Returned: Internalised Displacement in Aharon Appelfeld’s Works

From Firenze University Press Journal: LEA

University of Florence
3 min readJun 2, 2022

Alberto Legnaioli, Università degli Studi di Firenze

When the King of Assyria, laid siege to Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel,1 legend has it that after the fall of the city the ten tribes which constituted the kingdom (out of the twelve ancient tribes traditionally descended from the sons of Jacob) underwent mass deportation, never to return. Unlike their ancestors in Egypt and their neighbours’ descendants in the south a few generations later, they never came out of the desert.

The promise of “ש֑ב וּדְבָ֖ת חָלָ֥רֶץ זָבַ֛אֶ ]…[ רֶץ טוֹבָה֙ וּרְחָבָ֔ה֤אֶ ]…[” (Exodus 3:8 in BHS)3remained unfulfilled.Another story tells us that those who had managed to escape the murderous claws of the German beast found refuge in that very land, which for hundreds of years had been just a distant dream. There those remnants of a world pushed to the brink of annihilation began, “לבנותולהיבנות בה” (Appelfeld 1975, 122)4, to lay the foundations for their new lives, gradually piecing together the shattered fragments of their old selves. That strip of arid and scorched land offered them redemption from centuries of subordination and oppression in the shape of a new home and language. There they would finally be free to determine their own fate.As will become clear over the course of the exposition, both these stories are relevant to Aharon Appelfeld’s fiction, as they represent the author’s specific articulation of the tension between what Gershon Shaked calls “the Zionist meta-narrative” (Holtzman 2008, 283) and its alternatives, constantly competing for the same audience and struggling to get wider recognition (287–88). Throughout his career Appelfeld went to great lengths to avoid presenting his readers with yet another variation on the Jewish theme of redemption, wherein the “tribe” successfully escapes the wasteland to the promised land.

What the author gradually discloses to his readers is a world of perpetual inner displacement, of constant wandering, where ’eretz Yiśra’el (the land of Israel) is nothing more than an empty container to the characters that live in it, an unkept promise, “yet another way-station in a world of transports” (Shaked1995, 97).Taking Shaked’s concept as the main interpretive lens through which Appelfeld’s fiction will be observed, this study will trace the author’s ambivalence toward the above-mentioned Zionist meta-narrative. Despite his being quite careful to position himself as one of its fiercest critics, he included in his own work one of its most distinctive views concerning Shoah survivors in particular, and European assimilated Jews in general, namely the unresolved tension between considering them worthy of compassion and at least partly responsible for their own demise. To this end we will examine those characters Appelfeld chooses to depict — as well as those that he prefers not to include — and the distinctive traits he assigns to them.


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