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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2006) : 79--106
Aharon Appelfeld and the Problem of Holocaust Fiction

Bernard Harrison
Rubric A: Narrative as a Way of Thinking



The philosopher Berel Lang offers powerful arguments for the conclusion that there can be no useful fictional treatment of the Holocaust. However, he notes that three writers (Celan, Appelfeld, and Borowski) escape the force of these arguments. Lang is prepared to grant that, in such cases, “literary and moral genius” may enable a writer to “transcend” the “supposedly intrinsic” limitations suggested by abstract philosophical argument; but leaves open the question what such “genius” consists in. This essay is an attempt to provide an answer to that question for the specific case of Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld’s fictions introduce their readers into the fabric of Jewish life in Central Europe immediately prior to the catastrophe, to the extent of allowing them to feel in propria persona, and thus to attain knowledge-of, rather than merely knowledge-about, the tensions constituting the situational framework within which those lives were lived. Appelfeld’s fictions offer a way of recovering the individuality, as persons rather than numbers, of those whom the Shoah destroyed, because individuality displays itself, inter alia, in the varying of individual response to a common situation. Such recovery is relevant to our moral understanding of the Shoah, it is argued, because what is morally important about the representations of the Shoah is not merely the destruction, but also the nature of what was destroyed. The essay concludes with brief discussions of the relative merits, in this connection, of fiction and memoir, and of the criticisms levelled against Appelfeld’s work by M. A. Bernstein and others.

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