Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld (1932−2018) drew on his experience as a survivor of the Holocaust both in his adult fiction and his two works for children, although Long Summer Nights defies categorization. This haunting account of a young Jewish boy in World War II Ukraine embodies both myth and history; he has been entrusted by his parents into the care of a Christian World War I veteran. Grandpa Sergei becomes a wise and loving father figure to Yanek, teaching him how to survive both physically and spiritually in their long wanderings to evade capture by the enemy. The older man succeeds in transforming this desperate journey into a purposeful one, in which Yanek trains as a soldier in the service of moral values. Any time Yanek weakens or feels doubts, Grandpa Sergei is there to reassure him: “Does a fighter for justice have to train all his life?…Certainly…Only a strong body and a sturdy spirit can do the impossible.”
Yet Yanek and his surrogate grandfather cannot accomplish the impossible. Appelfeld describes the psychological hazards which physical terror has imposed on an innocent child, defying the reader’s expectation that this story will be one of good triumphing over evil. Yanek, originally named Michael, must destroy his identity in order to survive. Grandpa Sergei assures him that, “It’s just a temporary camouflage. The day will come, and it’s not far off, and you’ll take off this camouflage and go back to being what you were.” This sentence encapsulates the experience of Holocaust survival; Yanek needs to believe in its truth, but he is also troubled by constant dreams of his lost family and past life. Appelfeld’s narrative technique deliberately juxtaposes these dream sequences with Yanek’s daily life; the reader, like Yanek, may be briefly unsure if they are imagined or true.
At the point when Yanek’s father asks Sergei to care for the Jewish boy, the former soldier has already led a difficult life. Both religious and skeptical of the Church, briefly married and widowed, attracted to temptations which took him away from his home — Sergei has chosen to impose meaning on his experiences. As he talks to Yanek, he uses his army experience as a metaphor, emphasizing that the boy needs to train both his body and soul to be strong and resilient. Appelfeld’s wise and noble character is a flawed mortal who, in spite of his courage and compassion, is not able to alter the course of history. Not until one quarter of the way into the narrative does overt violence against Jews appear, “‘They took them to big pits and shot them.’ The peasant spoke in an objective manner.” The subtlety with which Appelfeld avoids comforting conclusions about human indestructibility in the face of evil is one of the most profound achievements of this novel.
Although Long Summer Nights is not a picture book, Vali Mintzi’s illustrations — interspersed throughout the text — are an essential complement to Appelfeld’s text. Drawn in the style of charcoal sketches, they capture the link between human beings and nature which reflects Yanek and Grandpa Sergei’s life in the countryside. People are dark silhouettes or have minimally defined features, lending a folkloric quality to this tale of the lost world preserved in Appelfeld’s poetry of anguish and love.
Long Summer Nights is highly recommended for both children and adults.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.