Until the Dawn’s Light

Schocken Books  2011

 
We enter this sad, prescient story as a mother and son are on a train; we sense the tension of flight. Aharon Appelfeld signals us at once in this remarkable novel that “movement” in its many forms will relentlessly propel the lives of his characters to their doom as Blanca and her young son, Otto, flee the scene of a horrific crime.

Movement and frenetic motion signify every aspect of Blanca and her family’s life. Her immediate family has moved over the entire religious spectrum: her parents are non-religious, assimilated; she herself has tried converting to Catholicism in a useless effort to please. Only Blanca’s grandmother, Carole, remains an observant Jew. Indeed it is Carole, who, when the local synagogue is forced to close because so many of the congregants have converted, will condemn the apostates at the top of her lungs for their desertion or movement away from the religious core. Blanca, a promising student, is either oblivious, or reluctant to confront what lies ahead. She forfeits her academic future to marry Adolf, an abusive, sadistic brute, a non-Jew who forces her to move away - and separate from her parents. Blanca’s attempts to please and cajole Adolf are never successful and we witness yet another form of existential movement, as Blanca detaches from her core Jewish values so clearly embedded from an early biblical adherence to the Ten Commandments. To survive, she begins to drink liquor, steal, lie, and ultimately to murder her Hitler-like husband.

Blanca records her story in a diary for her son Otto. She knows that he will be growing to adulthood without her, her incarceration and hanging for the murder of her husband looming. She wants him to know everything. ”When you grow up, don’t forget the notebooks,” she urges him.

Strikingly, Appelfeld’s novel predates the Holocaust by several decades. We learn that Appelfeld in all his works may have preferred allegory to a realistic depiction of his own suffering, losing his mother to the Nazis and deportation to a concentration camp. Simon Wiesenthal provides a chilling answer as a possible reason for Appelfeld's avoidance in his memoir, The Murderers are Among Us, remembering the SS men admonishing the prisoners that in the unlikely instance that any of them would survive, even if they were to tell it, they wouldn’t be believed. Perhaps this was Appelfeld’s thinking. Or we can conjecture that he has taken another tack, preferring to depict the social and moral climate of the years preceding the Holocaust to suggest the moral guilt of those who chose to deny the culpability of the community that ultimately lead to the Holocaust. In any case the early brutalization and subjugation are for the reader all too hideously palpable, suggesting the horror of what was to come.


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