After writing 11 Shoah novels, Appelfeld still sees life as joyful

A man, a Jew, a Holocaust survivor never leaves Europe.

Instead, he rides exactly the same railroad route year after year, decade after decade. He searches for the occasional prayerbook or menorah that survived the war. He hunts for the Nazi who murdered his parents. He fights melancholy.

This man, Erwin Siegelbaum, is the protagonist in a new novel by renowned Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld.

This man is all survivors.

Regardless of whether survivors return physically to Europe, Appelfeld knows they cannot put the Holocaust behind them. But the author, who himself survived the war as a child after losing his parents, isn't trying to evoke pity.

In fact, he objects to seeing survivors only as despondent.

"This is not the way I see it," the 65-year-old writer said last week during a stop in San Francisco. "In every life, you have joy and sadness. These are the waves of life…Sadness is a part of our soul. There is no question."

But, he added, "Life by itself is joy."

Appelfeld's joys can be as simple as waking up to a good cup of coffee, writing a "reasonable page" or meeting with friends.

"After the Holocaust I have not lost belief in God or in human beings. That's another joy. I still believe in human beings," said Appelfeld, whose pale blue eyes are both gentle and intense.

He was one of several literary giants who visited the Bay Area last week to address a writers' conference called "Writing the Jewish Future: A Global Conversation."

So highly regarded is Appelfeld, that he, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua are known as Israel's "great triumvirate" of writers.

Born in 1932 in Romania, Appelfeld witnessed his mother's murder by the Nazis. He was separated from his father, whom he never saw again. At age 8, Appelfeld was sent to a concentration camp.

The boy managed to escape. He spent the war hiding out and then joined the Russian army as a kitchen boy. He immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1946.

Despite missing a decade of education, he went on to write 11 novels.

The Holocaust has always been the axis of Appelfeld's writing — even in works set in earlier and later periods. He acknowledges it would be almost impossible to write about anything else.

"This is the major event of the 20th century," said Appelfeld, who is also a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The nightmare began in the nation that represented the best of Western culture. As a result, Appelfeld said, the genocide called into question all the values of Western civilization.

He has no answer to this irony.

Though he has been writing about the Holocaust for 40 years, Appelfeld has yet to find healing in his work.

"Artistic writing is not a process of healing," said Appelfeld. "It's extending your personality. It's enriching your personality with different metaphors and symbols."

His new novel about a wandering Jew swirls with grief.

"Of course, it's sad," Appelfeld said.

But he points out that the main character also has insights, purpose and happy moments. Siegelbaum isn't poor in the pocket or the heart. Human contact enriches him.

The novel is also a protest against settling into what Appelfeld calls a middle-class mentality.

Siegelbaum has no 9-to-5 job, no wife, no children, no home, no car. But instead of pitying this atypical man for not joining society, Appelfeld applauds him.

"He realizes he cannot live a normal life," said Appelfeld, who himself is the father of three and resides in a Jerusalem suburb with his wife, Judith.

In real life, survivors took on the guise of normality. But Appelfeld believes that below the surface, they are more like the restless Siegelbaum.

"It's so hidden that you cannot see it."

The author has a particular disdain for the petit bourgeois, a group generally defined as the middle class. Appelfeld takes the definition a step further, describing the petit bourgeois as those for whom the material has replaced the spiritual.

"Some petit bourgeois have lost purpose," he said.

Like members of the middle class, Siegelbaum also collects objects. But he's not looking for luxury items. He's redeeming pieces of Judaica — Shabbat candlesticks and Kiddush cups, for example — that would otherwise be lost. These are the last traces of many Holocaust victims.

"This person is looking for spirituality," Appelfeld said.

Appelfeld is more oblique about his own beliefs. He is neither Orthodox nor a "secular, materialistic Jew."

He explains that during the Holocaust he met both terrible human beings and wonderful ones. He believes all survivors came in contact with a "spark of God," one or two critical people who made survival possible.

"My experience brought me in deep touch with people," he said in his quiet, calm voice.

Despite Appelfeld's near-obsession with the Shoah, he fights against institutionalizing it. He doesn't particularly like the idea of focusing so heavily on museums and memorials.

If one is dealing primarily with facts and figures, Appelfeld said, the Holocaust can be summed up in a couple of dozen sentences.

To him, a more positive response to the question of how to memorialize the victims is to learn a bit of Yiddish, study a page of Talmud or read a book of Jewish philosophy.

"This has meaning."