Badenheim 1939

It is spring 1939 in the age of anxiety. In months Europe will be Hitler’s. And Badenheim, a resort town vaguely in the orbit of Vienna, is preparing for its summer season. The vacationers arrive as they always have, a sampling of Jewish middle-class life: the impresario Dr. Pappenheim, his musicians, and their conductor; the gay Frau Tsauberblit; the historian, Dr. Fussholdt, and his much younger wife; the “readers,” twins whose passion for Rilke is featured on their program; a child prodigy; a commercial traveler; a rabbi. The list waxes as the summer wanes. To receive them in the town are the pharmacist and his worried wife, the hotelier and his large staff, the pastry shop owner and his irritable baker, Sally and Gertie (two quite respectable prostitutes), and, mysteriously, the bland inspectors from the “Sanitation Department.”The story unfolds as matter-of-factly as a Chekhov play. The characters on stage are so deeply held by their defensive daily trivia that they manage to misconstrue every signal of their fate. Finally, the vacationers, whose numbers have now increased by the forced crowding-in of other Jews hardly on vacation, become de facto prisoners in their familiar resort; their “vacation” begins to take on the lineaments of undefined disaster. The text builds a sense of foreboding in which each human detail is so persuasive, so right in its fidelity to the terrible evasions of the time, that it leaves us transformed by what we and the author know must, and will, happen to Badenheim’s visitors.Badenheim 1939 owes everything to its author’s astonishing capacity to recreate the energies and confusions of innocent and uncomprehending victims who, always loyal to civility and social graces, fail to even dimly see the cruel terms of their imminent fate.

As real as Kafka’s unnamed Prague . . . imbued with a Watteau-like melancholy.
Gabriel Annan, New York Review of Books

Magical . . . gliding from a kind of romantic realism into universal allegory.
Peter Prescott, Newsweek

The sorcery of Badenheim 1939 [lies in] the success with which the author has concocted a drab narrative involving rather ordinary characters and made their experienced profoundly symbolic yet never hollow.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

The writing flows seamlessly …a small masterpiece.
Irving Howe, New York Times Book Review

Aharon Appelfeld is a novelist who resides in Israel but writes little about life there. He focuses instead on the world that surrounded his childhood – Jewish life in Europe before, during, and after World War II. Much of this work focuses on the search for a mother figure, which perhaps reflects his losing his own mother at a young age. He was also separated from his father during the Holocaust and only found him twenty years later. Appelfield’s sparse, metaphorical fiction evokes rather than outright describes these tragic events and the horrors of the Holocaust.

 

Dalya Bilu is the translator of A.B.Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld and many others. She has been awarded numerous prizes, including the Israel Culture and Education Ministry Prize for Translation, and the Jewish Book Council Award for Hebrew-English Translation. She lives in Jerusalem.