Aharon Appelfeld’s rage at the German language (and Arendt’s need for it)

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Aharon Appelfeld
Aharon Appelfeld, at the Toby Press

Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld has won this year’s Independent foreign fiction prize for his 2006 novel, Blooms of Darkness (Hebrew title: Pirhei HaAfela). The award, sponsored by the Independent newspaper, also presented £5,000 to Jeffrey M Green who translated it into English. It seems self-evident that the 80-year-old would write in Hebrew given he was brought to Palestine in 1946 as a child refugee. Nevertheless, several media outlets reporting on the story cite Appelfeld’s repulsion for and rejection of the German language:

‘Although the author grew up speaking German, he chooses to write instead in the Hebrew he learned from the age of 14, calling German “the language of the murderers”.’

Appelfeld expressed this view in an exchange published in the December 1982 issue of the Boston Review.

You see, it would be not only a paradox, it would be tragic, to write in the language of the murderers. Just to think about it is enough to stop it. I suffered as a Jew and I was trying to find my roots. My family were Jews, the history and culture of the Jews–naturally it brought me to Hebrew, the main Jewish language, from the Bible.

The mother tongue of Hannah Arendt was also German. Unlike Appelfeld, Arendt was already in her 20s when she fled Germany in 1933– for France, and then America. A scholar of German Romanticism, she would later write The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem in English. And when it came to German, she said: 

I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue… I write in English [now], but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language. For myself I can put it extremely simply: In German I know a rather large part of German poetry by heart; the poems are always somehow in the back of my mind…. The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have consciously preserved…. What is one to do? It wasn’t the German language that went crazy.

The interviewer Günter Gaus went on to ask her if in cases where the mother tongue is forgotten, this is the result of repression. ‘Yes, very frequently,’ Arendt continues. ‘I have seen it in people as a result of shock. You know, what was decisive was not the year 1933, at least not for me. What was decisive was the day we learned about Auschwitz [in 1943].’

It’s a famous interview, and Günter Gaus conducted it in German. You can listen to it here. It also appears in English in “’What Remains? The Language Remains’: A Conversation with Günter Gaus,” in Hannah Arendt’s Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954. The interview took place in 1964, towards the end of the controversy that had raged over Arendt’s report in The New Yorker on the trial of Eichmann. Her old friend the historian Gershom Scholem had criticized her report for the ‘heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious tone’ in which she discussed the actions of the Jewish councils in Europe under the Nazis.

‘In you, dear Hannah’, he wrote, ‘I find little trace’ of ‘Ahabath Israel: love of the Jewish people’. Arendt tells Gaus that her Jewishness was ‘one of the indisputable factual data’ of her life that she had never wanted to change, but she had ‘never in [her] life “loved” any people or collective group’ — only friends.

The Jewish inhabitants of Aharon Appelfeld’s native town of Czernowitz spoke Viennese German, to which words in Yiddish and Ruthenian were added in everyday speech. He has written in Haaretz that ‘This mixture created a new language; I do not know if it was organic, but it was full of nuances and contrasts, and was the source of Czernowitzian humor’. As Appelfeld explains in his 1982 interview, although the language spoken at home was German, he learned to speak many other languages:

My grandparents, they’d spoken Yiddish. The maids in my home were Ukrainian, so I spoke Ukrainian. The regime was Rumanian, so I picked up a bit of Rumanian. And then I was in Russia and picked up Russian, then Italy and picked up some Italian. So I came with a bunch of words, different languages–but still very deeply disoriented.

Yet the English-language press (at least) is keen to report his angry statement on the German language itself, without the further qualification that he frequently expressed disdain for Jews who did not adopt Hebrew – whose revival he believes is ‘probably a miracle’. These Jews ‘preferred to remain in their countries and not join the Jewish community,’ which he calls a tragedy ‘from the Zionist point of view, probably from the Jewish point of view’. 

More nationalism: Appelfeld informs his interviewer that ’Jews in America are living a double identity,’  

but it’s becoming less and less double. It’s becoming more American, less Jewish. I’m probably the first person you’ve met [Mr. Appelfeld says this playfully] who identifies himself as a Jew–who says in his first sentence, I’m Jewish, I’m a Jewish writer, I’m writing for Jews, I do not have any pretensions to understanding Americans.

Appelfeld also claims that when the Zionist movement began ‘Palestine was a waste–rocks and hills and sand. Very under-populated by Arabs. Then Jews came to Palestine slowly at the beginning of the century and established some villages and small towns.’ 

The western media apparently delights in the fact that Appelfeld offers a vengeful rationale for why he doesn’t write in German, (after 66 years in Palestine/Israel why would he?), even while many survivors of the Nazi era and the Holocaust continue to speak it as their mother tongue or write and read it through their scholarship or love of Germanic literature. Arendt is an inspiring example, but not only for her statement that ‘it wasn’t the German language that went crazy’. She stands in antithesis to the nihilism of writers like Appelfeld who advocate collective punishment and the erasure of the Palestinian narrative, pouring scorn on those who choose their own ‘tribe’ – a term Arendt used instead for her eclectic group of close friends.

At the end of the war, Arendt wrote the essay ‘Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility’ for the Jewish Frontier (January 1945). She argued that it is reasonable, in varying degrees, to hold the German people morally responsible for Nazi crimes, but stated why the notion of collective guilt was unacceptable and adapted her criticism to the postwar situation in Germany. A German version of the essay was published after the war in Die Wandlung.

After the death of her husband Heinrich Blücher (a German philosopher and poet) in 1970, she refused to give up her Riverside Drive apartment in Manhattan because Blücher’s absence was ‘there and alive in every corner and at every moment’. In a letter to her friend Mary McCarthy, Arendt explained her decision by recalling lines from Friedrich Hölderlin, the German lyric poet:

Und vieles
Wie auf den Schultern eine
Last von Scheitern ist
Zu behalten

“And much/ as on your shoulder/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep” – In short: remembrance.

(In Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, second edition, Yale University Press 2004)

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As you say, Appelfeld comes from Czernowitz/Cernăuţi/Chernovtsy, a city that was successively Austrian, Romanian, Soviet, and Ukrainian. His ties to German may not be that strong. Then again, Paul Celan, a Jewish writer from the city who’s parents died in Nazi labor camps wrote in German and is considered the great postwar German poet. But Appelfeld may have been thinking of Celan’s unhappy end. Perhaps he thought a clean break preferable to living with ghosts… Read more »

Perhaps somewhere there is someone (a Palestinian) for whom Hebrew is “a” native language (probably not “the”); should such a person refuse with utter revulsion — because of the horror of Israel’s bestiality — to write in Hebrew?

I know that USA MSM reporters in Israel seem not to have learned to read it, but that’s doubtless only because learning it (or Arabic) is a very, very hard job. And not needed for these amanuensis-folk.

Appelfeld obviously grew up in a multi-lingual environment where choosing a language was — a choice. In the same time, it was quite famous in Ashkenazi circles that no groups was more proud of their country of origin than German Jews (meaning, they had a tendency of viewing themselves as more cultured than their co-religionists from places like Romania).

i read the reviews of the novel, sounds exceptional. it’s unfortunate someone of such talent carries a mental block against a language, but understandable. brilliant minds often apply contorted logic.

thanks for a really good/interesting read eleanor